Home Mental Health & Well-Being Accepting Collective Trauma: 16 Years of 9/11

Accepting Collective Trauma: 16 Years of 9/11

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Today marks 16 years since the devastating loss of life from the terror attacks in New York City, Washington DC, and Stonycreek Township in Pennsylvania. While incidents similar to this felt somewhat commonplace, nothing had ever been achieved on such a large scale that would cause a ripple effect of anguish and agony across the globe.

I’m sure we can all remember where we were when the attacks took place. For myself, I was 11 years old and had just arrived home from school to find my Mum in the living room stood behind the ironing board. She was stunned, open-mouthed staring at the television set which was replaying the planes crashing into the buildings. Shortly after, the towers fell.

Despite being so young and unaware of the true impact, there were many sombre days after where we tried to process such a catastrophic event despite it not being on our immediate doorstep. It has, with no great surprise, been evidenced that even those who witnessed the attacks on media ended up feeling the same trauma symptoms as those who were present.

The psychological impact of 9/11 was initially colossal, with many Americans facing feelings of insecurity, anger, distress, and showing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder – a mental illness that can bring about debilitating and harrowing symptoms. While initial symptoms of PTSD will naturally occur in the immediate aftermath of a trauma event and diminish over time as our brain digests this new upsetting memory, for some the suffering will continue.

A report taken on the 10th commemoration of the attacks showed thousand of citizens of New York City were still showing symptoms of PTSD. A major city that was, and is still, united by grief and pain and struggling psychologically to come to terms with the events that had taken place.

Collective trauma is a fitting description to explain how a large mass of people can each be affected in incidents that may not even happen where they are located.

How often do we turn on the news and have to witness disturbing images of war, terror, poverty, natural disasters, or negative social events? Every day.

There will come a time that we become adjusted to dealing with these horrific events, but for some of us, psychologically accepting these upsetting incidents can impact us on a much bigger scale over a longer period of time.

A huge proportion of research is invested in trying to understand how we identify ourselves and how we adjust to changes, whether big or small. When this is altered in a way that is destructive, it is bound to be difficult to accept our newfound place in the world.

Recent events in the UK will highlight the psychological impact of trauma on a heightened scale as the travesty has occurred much closer to home. Even for someone like me who lives in a mostly rural location, the terror attacks in London and Manchester are hard to comprehend and bring about feelings of insecurity.

Let’s not forget the impact these events can have on vulnerable children who are still learning each and every day. The Royal College of Psychiatrists revealed there had been a big increase in young people seeking support in recent months due to the Manchester and London attacks. Also, it was reported that around 80 police officers and firefighters are seeking help for posttraumatic stress every day and two have taken their own lives, as they struggle to cope with events such as the recent terror attacks and the Grenfell fire. 

In anticipation of the mental health struggles ahead, the NHS have formed a service in Manchester solely designated to help those directly affected by the arena attack in May. But what about the rest of us as a nation? Will we respond in the same way the American citizens did on 9/11? Will the impact continue to reverberate for decades ahead just like it is on US soil? As a collective, we felt the trauma, but we also felt the rainbow of emotions.

There was anger, sadness, frustration, and tragedy but there was also support, love, community, and the willingness to provide help to those in desperate need. 9/11 sparked a huge response in research on how we psychologically cope with such devastating incidents, we can only hope that this newfound knowledge will help us as we come to terms with adjusting to our new identities in a post-London and Manchester era.

Katie Bagshawe is currently a Student Diagnostic Radiographer at the University of Derby. She holds an MSc in Psychology from Sheffield Hallam University.


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