NewPublicHealth Q&A: Kathryn Power

Sep 19, 2011, 6:33 PM, Posted by

file Kathryn Power, SAMHSA

The tenth anniversary of the September 11 attackscreated some important lessons for handling public trauma, says Kathryn Power, M.Ed., director of the Center for Mental Health Services at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. NewPublicHealth spoke with Kathryn Power about how to use those lessons to improve the response to unexpected trauma in the U.S.

NewPublicHealth: What emotional impact did the tenth anniversary of have?

Kathryn Power:The 10th anniversary is often seen as significant one, and of course, this past year Osama bin Laden was killed, and that brought people to a higher level of appreciation and understanding about the importance of healing from this event. And so, it’s an interesting observation on everyone’s part to say look at what happened, look at the amount of coverage, look at the amount of media attention, look at the amount of ceremony and ritual and remembrance that was tied up in the day’s events.

And yet, at the same time we found that really people have not been re-traumatized by this. Generally the studies show that individuals in New York and Shanksville and Arlington – the survivors, the rescue workers, etc. have shown remarkable resilience. Resilience is really what I believe was the underpinning message of all of the anniversary events.

NPH: Is there a subset of people still continuing to recover whom you would want to know that help continues to be available?

Kathryn Power: Absolutely. There are certainly individuals, and particularly individuals who may have had emotional problems or mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, who may have been affected by the trauma and therefore, are more vulnerable in some ways than perhaps the rest of the population. At SAMHSA, we made sure we were putting out a lot of good information, materials and guidance that people could get from our Disaster Technical Assistance Center, which is operated by the Center for Mental Health Services. The information walks people through what they should be aware of, how they should structuring their day or their week, how they should anticipate momentous anniversaries such as 9/11; what they can do for themselves.

NPH: What did you think of the 9/11 coverage in the U.S.?

Kathryn Power: Well, it was my personal opinion that the coverage was certainly very thorough, but it was also very repetitive. We led up to it by showing media clips of what’s going to happen in three days, in two days, in one day. The amount of print and video and television coverage was enormous, and I think that what I admired was that there were community venues in which people honored the sacrifice and the heroic efforts of the individuals involved and then it became a remembrance and a healing rather than trying to encourage people to relive how horrified we were about it. I don’t think that’s helpful.

And so, I think that the 10-year anniversary was really a demarcation that we said we have now grieved and we have recognized our loss and we are a changed country and now we need to move forward.

NPH: Can a person, with or without mental health issues, prepare to handle trauma?

Kathryn Power: We all have mental health issues. We’re all worried about our mental health status; we all care deeply about our emotional health. So regardless of whether we have serious mental illness or substance abuse disorder, we should all be paying much more attention to our mental health status, to understanding who we are emotionally and understanding what is our set point. Getting a language about being able to describe our own emotional status is hugely important. I think that is the first step. The second step is that we should have a much higher sense of preparedness about the fact that these issues and these events will occur. Whether we believe in global warming or not, the weather is changing, patterns are changing; the frequency with which we have these kinds of natural disasters has really accelerated. There are also great materials from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network about how you can build up a higher level of resilience, which is the most important defense against stress.

If an event does occur, you need to understand what affects you. In other words, if sitting and re-watching the event over and over is going to do nothing but sadden you and terrorize you, don’t do it. As soon as HHS or SAMSHA or some entity in the federal government or state government learns about an event, we mobilize phone calls and contacts to the community or the state where the event has occurred and we immediately talk to them about what they should be anticipating might happen in terms of the initial mental health reaction and the subsequent recovery reaction. We know enough about the phases of a disaster to help people and we train all the disaster response teams in the states.

I think that American society is begging and willing and open to talking about mental health status and emotional life issues and how it’s tied up and inseparable from our physical experience and that’s wonderful.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.