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Life as it was known — gone

But experts say the American psyche can heal

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"Say goodbye to life as we know it," the man said to no one in particular in the moments following Tuesday's terrorist attacks.

He's right, according to crisis experts who Tuesday afternoon were considering the impact the terrorist attacks would have on the national psyche.

Shocked Americans were trying to find comparisons: Pearl Harbor? The Cuban Missile Crisis? The Oklahoma City bombing?

In reality, nothing comparable has ever happened in America. On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were stripped of their feeling of invulnerability, said Louis Morse, psychologist.

"We gave up something as a nation today," said Stephanie Lucas, an LDS Hospital social worker and crisis counselor. "Our lives will never be the same, and never, as a country, will we feel as safe as we did before.

"That's a bitter pill to swallow, but we have to swallow it. It has not taken away our hope, our optimism, our spirit, but deep down inside we all know that things have changed."

Terrorism's aim is to paralyze people, and the only antidote is action, said psychologist Robert Card. "Once you get in action mode, depression tends to lift. The most important thing we can do is go about our life. The very thing terrorists hope to do is rob us of that ability to function."

Even people far removed physically need to — and can — take action, said psychologist Robert Pramann of Shepherd's Staff Christian Counseling Center.

"It's helpful talking to friends and loved ones, encouraging others. It's helpful to be involved in some kind of recreational or athletic activity to relieve some of the stress. Prayer and meditation can be an ongoing thing that's helpful. If there are individuals who are particularly traumatized, there are mental-health professionals who can help."

Valley Mental Health, for instance, will provide free crisis counseling to the public Wednesday from 3 to 8 p.m. at 9310 S. 1300 East and at 1992 S. 200 East.

Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman said a specific hotline had been established for any resident desiring counseling. The number is 483-5444.

This is a country with a strong history of pulling together, Lucas said. The long lines at blood donor centers nationwide prove that.

"One of the things we've done as a society is deal with fears. People along the San Andreas fault go to work every day. They don't live in fear. We know we have vulnerabilities, but we're not going to dwell on it on an everyday basis," she said.

That doesn't mean everyone reacts well. Card warned some people would use the terrorist attacks as an excuse to treat people who are different badly or place blame on them. "That's a really unfortunate part of all this."

And some will try to profit from the fear and misery, he said.

Pramann predicts "tension between individual liberty on one hand and trying to keep things safe" in coming weeks. "I suspect we are going to give up some liberty to maintain safety."

Healing, emotionally, is both a community and an individual process. Lucas suggests starting "by feeling yourself, making sure your arms and legs and senses are there, being in touch with the people you want to be reassured are safe; then it's one step at a time."

"We take lessons from the Israelis, from Vietnam veterans and others. Many of us are going to have symptoms. My heart rate's up, I'm quite shaken. We are all vulnerable. The incredible thing is, we are all in this together, and it will unite many of us, some even who may have felt apathetic."

Susan Hansen-Porter, a licensed clinical social worker, suggests people look at their personal situations as a way to calm down.

"Probably the best thing we can do in our own personal life is put the terrorist attack in context; there's no imminent danger to us personally in Salt Lake."

Only by stepping back that way will the country be able to "start to deal with the larger issues we as a country are going to have to deal with," she said.

Helping children cope requires different things.

"Parents know best about their own children," Lucas said. "You should answer as honestly as you can the questions they are asking you. . . . There are no guarantees, but children need to believe they are safe in homes and schools and communities." And those who have strong symptoms such as nightmares may need professional help.

"It's incumbent upon us as adults to be adults. We should shield children from things they don't need to know. Normalizing life is important. 'We still go to school and to church on Sunday, we water the garden and dig up weeds, and yes, you can play basketball, because we have to continue our lives,' " said Lucas.

Possibly the most important part of healing the national psyche will come with keeping an eye on the big picture, Card said. "We've seen gruesome and horrifying accounts. It has to be put in perspective; the whole country is not burning, all of society is not going down the tubes."

"We must continue or we let the terrorists win. It has to be sort of a faithful commitment to America and to Americans to continue to live," Lucas said.


E-mail: lois@desnews.com