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9/11 anniversary could cause some to relive trauma, stress, experts say

While the remembrances and tributes to those lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are meant to offer solace and solidarity, some people can be retraumatized by images and video of the day, including those who lost friends and family in the attacks. File Photo by Chris Corder/UPI
While the remembrances and tributes to those lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are meant to offer solace and solidarity, some people can be retraumatized by images and video of the day, including those who lost friends and family in the attacks. File Photo by Chris Corder/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 6 (UPI) -- With the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaching, widespread media coverage of tributes and memorial ceremonies is likely to cause some people to relive the trauma of that gruesome day, experts say.

Many across the United States will pause to reflect on the lives lost -- seeing images of them online and in the media. For some it could be healing, but for others looking back could be detrimental to their mental health.

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"People [with] depression and anxiety may be more susceptible to experiencing increased distress as they witness media coverage of 9/11 unfold," Dana Rose Garfin, of the Resilience, Epidemiology and Community Health Lab at the University of California- Irvine, told UPI in email.

"This may be particularly true in light of all the heartbreaking media coverage associated with the end of the war in Afghanistan and the evacuation efforts," said Garfin, an assistant adjunct professor of health, society and behavior.

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Much of the research conducted by Garfin and her colleagues found that people who have mental health problems or who "responded negatively to prior collective trauma" are at increased risk for experiencing distress following subsequent events and even media coverage of them.

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This has been seen most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also in the aftermath of terrorist attacks and other conflicts and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. And it has been borne out in studies that assess the long-term mental health effects of 9/11, she said.

"Those who struggle with media exposure as a distress trigger may want to avoid media coverage," Garfin said. "However, coverage that seeks to honor and remember may even be healing, [so] I would suggest avoid coverage that displays graphic images or politicizes the issue."

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An assessment of New York City high school students, published in 2004, found that, even without watching media coverage, many of them had "flashbulb memories" of the Sept. 11 attacks three years later, causing many to experience emotional distress.

Flashbulb memory is a clinical term in mental healthcare used to describe "a vivid, enduring memory associated with a personally significant and emotional event," according to the American Psychological Association.

Those who experience flashbulb memories often recall where they were or what they were doing at the time of the event, though perhaps not accurately, the association says.

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Meanwhile, a similar study published in 2002, found that prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression was higher among adults who repeatedly saw "people falling or jumping from the towers of the World Trade Center" -- at 17% and 15% -- than among those who did not -- 6% and 5%, respectively.

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This same study found that people who lost loved ones in the attacks or who watched television images of them frequently were more likely to have PTSD and depression than those who did not.

These mental health effects are not limited to the years immediately after the attacks, either, research shows.

A study published in September 2020 by the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness found that employees of New York City businesses who saw "graphic 9/11 media images" re-experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress at levels similar to those of survivors of the attacks.

Saturday's 20th anniversary will likely generate extensive media coverage that includes images of the events of that day and mental health professionals expect to see patients affected by them, New York City-based psychologist Dan Wolfson told UPI.

"Recalling painful or traumatic times of our lives ... is not inherently a bad thing, as long as we can stay grounded in the present," he said.

For many, watching or participating in commemorations of the anniversary of the attacks and experiencing emotions like sadness and anger "can help us process" these memories and adapt, Wolfson said.

"I encourage people to make space for the challenging thoughts and feelings that might come up, as opposed to trying to avoid them, and to do so in an intentional way," said Wolfson, who has treated survivors of the attacks and New York City residents traumatized by them.

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"For some people, this might mean seeking out the support of a professional to process their emotions and memories, while for others it might mean discussing their experience with a friend or finding some quiet time to reflect independently," he said.

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