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Many Clergy Feel Overwhelmed in the Wake of 9/11

Mental health: Church leaders say they had to deal with their own emotions before they could help others. Some say they're near 'compassion fatigue.'


NEW YORK — Everyone knows what it's like to have a fair-weather friend. Everyone, that is, except religious leaders. When skies turn cloudy--be it a divorce, sickness or unemployment--the clergy are all too familiar with seeing unfamiliar faces.

In the aftermath of 9/11, however, many of America's spiritual caregivers admit to feeling overwhelmed. Some even say they are close to succumbing to "compassion fatigue."

To address the problem, nearly 800 clergy filled a Manhattan hotel ballroom recently for a one-day seminar, "The Lifecycle of a Disaster: Rituals and Practice." Sponsored by the American Red Cross, the seminar was organized to consider how the 9/11 terrorist attacks have affected religious congregations and to lay a groundwork for handling national disasters that may lie ahead.

Caught Unprepared

Many of the seminar's participants said they felt unprepared to be the "first line of defense" against terror caused by the destruction of the World Trade Center.

"We're all finding our way, after being blindsided by this," said Thomas Craig, chaplain and director of pastoral care at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingstone, N.J. "I was numbed and angered by my own emotions. I had to learn to put them aside to hear others."

Many said they struggle to offer hope at a time when the government says more terrorist attacks are inevitable. "We've seen a tremendous increase of clients. Yet, how can I talk to people and say it will be OK, you're safe, when I don't know that's the case?" asked Anna Olsen of the North Jersey Centers for Spiritual and Mental Health in Randolph, N.J.

Tough Follow-Up

"The following months are usually the hardest times in the life cycle of a disaster," said Rabbi Stephen Roberts, chairman of Disaster Spiritual Care Services of the American Red Cross in Greater New York.

This may be especially true, he said, for those who didn't lose a family member or loved one, but "fled for their lives that day, or were in lower Manhattan and experienced the sound, sight and smell of so many souls being lost."

In attempting to provide guidance for the future, parallels were drawn to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, what was, until 9/11, America's worst terrorist attack.

Among those addressing the seminar were Brad Yarbrough of Oklahoma City, clergy coordinator; and Dr. John Tassey, chairman of the American Psychological Assn.'s task force on the Oklahoma City bombing.

There are lessons to be learned from the Oklahoma City bombing about the stages survivors go through, Tassey said.

First is the "heroic" stage, when immediate problems resulting from a disaster are handled.

Next is a "honeymoon," when a strong sense of community makes it easier to tolerate inconveniences.

Tassey said he feels New Yorkers and America may be emerging from the third, or "disillusionment" phase, when the community seems fragmented. Finally, there is "reconstruction," when the community and nation begin to redefine themselves.

The Hardest Stage

This transition between the fragmentation and reconstruction stages is the most difficult, Tassey said, because "responders and caregivers are leaving the scene just when the community is most irritable."

Indeed, two recently released surveys cited during the seminar corroborated this theory.

The New England Journal of Medicine estimates there are 67,000 people with post-traumatic stress disorder living south of 110th Street in New York, and another 90,000 suffering from depression as a result of 9/11.

And, according to the American Journal of Epidemiology, there has been a 28% increase in alcohol and drug use among the same population.

The numbers are not surprising because of the unprecedented scope of the World Trade Center attack, said Terry Becker, manager of pastoral care at University of Chicago Hospitals.

"We caregivers talk about the concept of 'limit experience,' by which we mean a smack against the limit of what we have control over," she said.

"What we've learned in the past is both relevant and irrelevant, because we are accustomed to speaking of individual or family trauma, but not community or national trauma."

Clergy may be unusually at risk of trauma themselves, said Yarbrough, because "ministers have a rescuer's mentality, and tend to exhaust themselves trying to help others."

One way to prevent that from happening, he said, was by being aware of one's limitations.

Though he was at the Murrah building for days back in 1995, Yarbrough admitted, "I couldn't give death notifications to surviving family members--I'm much too emotional."

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