After the Attacks...Counseling?

There is no 'quick fix' for suffering, but sometimes we really do need the kind of help therapy can offer.

"For once," says the World Trade Center memorial issue of Time magazine that arrived in my mailbox a few anguished days ago, "let's have no 'grief counselors' standing by with banal consolations, as if the purpose, in the midst of all this, were merely to make everyone feel better as quickly as possible. We shouldn't feel better."

The New York Times asked Richard Grasso, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, whether he had sought any psychological help since Tuesday. "No, I don't need it," he replied. "My counseling is this: that Monday morning 9:30 bell."

And yesterday's Times quoted from an open letter signed by nineteen psychologists, including several experts on the effects of trauma, who cited several studies that had found that certain crisis intervention techniques might be ineffective or might even slow recovery. They expressed particular concern about "medicalizing what are human reactions to things" and about one-time "debriefing" sessions immediately after a trauma that tell people what symptoms they might develop and encourage them to vent their emotions but offer no specific coping strategies. When these methods were used with rescue workers after a plane crash killed 112 people in Sioux City, Iowa, the workers complained that the help had been ineffective and intrusive.


In recent years therapy has acquired a "quick-fix" reputation, as though it were a way to wipe out all undesirable feelings with some sort of psychological eraser. Clearly the managed "care" industry, with its focus on short-term therapy and psychopharmacology, has contributed enormously to this unfortunate impression. Therapies and "healing" methods that promise impossibly joyous results, or suggest that simple affirmations can wipe away life's very real sorrows and discontents, haven't helped, either.

Maybe it's time to remember Freud's famous saying that after analysis, people suffer only from "common unhappiness." No therapy can take away the terrible events of September 11, or the grief and horror and uncertainly we have all felt since. Terrible things do happen.

And at terrible times like these, when you can, the first people to turn to are the ones you love. There is no substitute for the loving arms of a partner or parent or child or friend.

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