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For survivors of the World Trade Center attacks, post-traumatic stress symptoms may linger for years

January 07, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times
  • Researchers found that survivors of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder years after the event
Researchers found that survivors of the collapse of the World Trade Center… (Marty Lederhandler / AP )

Survivors who escaped the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder years after the event, a study finds.

Researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health surveyed 3,271 survivors two to three years after surviving the attack. About 95% said they had at least one recent post-traumatic stress symptom, and after screening, 15% were positive for PTSD. Only 4.4% reported no symptoms.

Several risk factors for PTSD included which tower and floor people were on when the attacks occurred; when they were able to evacuate; exposure to the post-collapse dust cloud; witnessing some horrific scene (seeing a plane hit the towers, witnessing people falling or jumping from the towers); and sustaining injuries.

About 61% of survivors were trapped in the dust cloud, 94% saw some horrific event, and 32% had an injury.

The most common PTSD symptoms included being jumpy and easily startled, and hypervigilance (as defined within the context of PTSD, this refers to always feeling tense and on guard).

Having a lower income was strongly linked with PTSD, as was, to a lesser extent, being female or a minority. Those making less than $25,000 a year were eight times more apt to have PTSD than those who made more than $100,000 year.

The authors speculated that those with lower incomes may be less likely to get mental health treatment, might lack resources, and could feel incapable of handling stressful events.

"As the long-term effects of the WTC disaster emerge the results from this study suggest that some survivors of the WTC disaster will continue to report psychological symptoms years after their exposure to the events of 9/11," said senior author Dr. Sandro Galea, in a news release. Galea, chairman of the department of epidemiology at Mailman, added: "The implication of this finding is that the impact of terrorism on survivors, particularly those in low socioeconomic positions, could be substantial."

The study was published online in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

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