What 9/11 Taught Us About Trauma

September 11, 2021 will mark 20 years since the terrorist attacks in New York City. Since then, we have learned how to communicate when phone and cable lines are down, and also what to do when evacuation routes are blocked as well as when roads to the nearest medical facilities are blocked. Not only did we learn important life saving lessons, but we also learned a lot about trauma and PTSD.

The powerful emotions that erupted from that day were not only felt in New York City or in surrounding states, but also across the United States and around the world. Two women who were in different parts of the city that day both experienced PTSD. Marcy Borders, who became known as Dust Lady, struggled for the decades following the attacks from depression as well as addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine. She is unfortunately one of many survivors who have struggled with mental illness and substance abuse since then. Esperanza Munoz witnessed the towers falling from a distance, but that doesn’t change her experience. To this day, she still has flashbacks and nightmares as well as anxiety whenever she hears sirens or a plane flying overhead. She can’t even step into New York City without panicking.

Many studies have been done on the affects of 9/11 and the first 9/11 trauma study was conducted on October 29, 2001. The team interviewed a huge range of survivors from the first responders, the recovery workers, those who survived the attacks themselves, and to those who lived in surrounding areas. They found that 96% of the survivors reported having experienced at least one symptom of PTSD 2 to 3 weeks after the tragedy. Of that 96%, a majority were still experiencing multiple symptoms 2 to 3 years afterwards. Another study on 9/11 focused on about 11,000 first responders and it was completed over a total of 8 years. They found that during the first year, at least 70% had actually never met the diagnoses criteria for PTSD but years later had many symptoms. Their study told them that the timelines of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms varied and hit people differently. They also found that these timelines are affected by the duration of the traumatic experience, the trauma-related medical experience, and also any prior psychiatric problems.

Not only have we learned in the almost two decades since then that PTSD symptoms rise up at different times for everyone and that trauma can be experienced by everyone, but psychologists themselves have learned new ways to react to major traumatic events like this one. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, psychologists themselves would ask those who were on Ground Zero or in the surrounding areas how they felt and if they were experiencing any symptoms. Years later, they have learned that not everyone is going to be traumatized and that everyone processes trauma differently. A new method that psychologists have come up with is called Psychological First Aid. Instead of asking the individual how they feel in the aftermath, the psychologist will offer the survivor services and give them information for the services. This not only allows flexibility, but it is also still reducing the distress caused by the event or events.

Unfortunately, that September day changed everything. Airport security is even tighter, rates of mental illness and PTSD have risen, and rates of substance abuse have risen. But at the same time, there have been positive changes that are allowing the country to prepare themselves for the next traumatic event or even to change the mental health field.


Cook, J. (2016, September 09). September 11th attacks: What we learned about trauma. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://time.com/4474573/911-september-11-trauma/

Pearson, C. (2011, November 09). 10 years after 9/11: What we now know about trauma. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/911-and-mental-health-a-n_n_951060

Researcher finds 9/11 attacks led to new understanding of mass trauma. (2011, August 31). Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://news.columbia.edu/news/researcher-finds-911-attacks-led-new-understanding-mass-trauma

Surviving 9/11: Trauma and substance abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.drugrehab.com/featured/9-11-trauma/

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