UAlbany Survey Shows WTC Tragedy had a Tremendous Psychic Impact on Students

Contact: Heidi Weber (518) 437-4993
 

Last September, millions of people watched as television broadcast, live, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. And that "vicarious witnessing," according to a survey of 500 students conducted recently by the University at Albany's Center for Stress and Anxiety has likely had an enormous impact on the national psyche. The survey also reveals that while twice as many women as men experienced more immediate symptoms of stress, the same amounts of men and women were found to have post-traumatic stress symptoms six to ten weeks following the attacks.

Center for Stress and Anxiety Disorders Director Edward B. Blanchard and graduate student Eric Kuhn, B.A. '91, along with a few other students, administered the survey to students primarily from the Introduction to Psychology courses, which mandate "participation in a certain number of research studies."

According to Blanchard, there are two types of stress. Acute Stress Disorder occurs when an individual is victimized by an event - such as a violent physical assault, a kidnapping, a hostage situation, or an automobile accident - that poses the possibility of death or serious injury to oneself or to another human being. That event, in turn, triggers feelings of fearfulness, helplessness, or horror that cause the individual to relive the trauma repeatedly through nightmares, flashbacks, and hallucinations. ASD symptoms appear - and generally resolve themselves - within four weeks of the trauma.

Symptoms that persist beyond four weeks, however, indicate Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD, which can "show up a month or more after an incident," may afflict the sufferer for a lifetime.

The survey queried respondents about the number of hours they had spent with media, including television, in the week after September 11; whether they had personally known victims of the World Trade Center collapse, and if so, how many. Other items on the questionnaire included whether the respondent had spoken with victims or witnesses, ever visited the trade center, or attended memorial services in the 14 days after the attacks. Survey participants were also asked the proximity of their homes to the WTC.

Of the more than 250 males sampled, 65, or 25.5 percent, displayed ASD symptoms in the two weeks after the terrorist attacks. Of the 230-plus female respondents, 101, or 43.7 percent, reported ASD symptoms. In all, 166 undergraduates, or 34.2 percent of those surveyed, were found to be suffering from symptoms associated with ASD, with women accounting for three out of every five afflicted by the disorder.

Blanchard was "surprised," however, at the PTSD results. Although nearly twice as many women as men had ASD, 29 men and 29 women were found to have PTSD symptoms six to ten weeks following the attacks. "I would have expected a gender difference there," he commented, explaining that, several years ago, a random survey of 8,000 U.S. adults indicated that women are about twice as likely as men to suffer from PTSD.

Analysis of the UAlbany survey data also revealed that respondents who come from areas closer to Ground Zero were more prone to suffer from symptoms of both ASD and PTSD than those who live farther away.

Blanchard, who has worked with automobile accident survivors, became curious about the possible psychic effects of the terrorist attacks. He and Kuhn "thought about what we had heard and seen September 11," and decided to do a survey. "What is notable about this," Blanchard stated, "is that data from motor vehicle accidents show that 60 to 75 percent of MVA survivors who have ASD wind up with PTSD within six months. The fact that we're finding a much lower rate may be just a difference in the nature of the trauma."

The survey is being expanded to include information compiled at North Dakota State University, Augusta State University in Georgia, and Mary Washington College in Virginia. Through former students, all three have connections with UAlbany. Mary Washington, the CSAD director pointed out, "is about 50 miles south of the Pentagon. It's pretty close and has psychic ties to the site of the attack." Input from the other two institutions will offer insight into the reactions of people farther away from the Pentagon. The data from the UAlbany survey can then be compared with the results of the other study, which are expected this winter.

"Before September 11, you would have had a debate as to whether watching something traumatic happen to somebody else on television was enough to make a person symptomatic. As far as I'm concerned, our data would no longer question that. September 11 was a defining day for many people, just as people of earlier generations remember John F. Kennedy's assassination or the bombing of Pearl Harbor," said Blanchard.

Established in 1844 and designated a center of the State University of New York in 1962, the University at Albany's broad mission of excellence in undergraduate and graduate education, research and public service engages 17,000 diverse students in eight degree-granting schools and colleges. For more information about this nationally ranked University, visit http://www.albany.edu.

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