Mental health first responder recalls helping people cope with 9/11 trauma

Remembering 9/11

(NEWS10) — Dr. James Halpern is a Board Member with the Hudson Valley chapter of the American Red Cross. He led the first disaster mental health team to the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In addition to being at Ground Zero looking for the walking wounded, Dr. Halpern also manned the missing person hotline where people called looking for loved ones. While he and his team were able to let some people know that their loved ones were located in hospitals, that was not the case for the most part.

“We were doing a kind of compassionate presence for them, helping them to cope with the uncertainty when they asked, ‘how could God have let this happen? How am I ever going to get through this? Do you think my loved one experienced fear or pain when they died?’ So those are memories of some of the folks that we spoke with over the phone in the very early days of the response,” Dr. Halpern recalled.

He added that those phone calls included making sure people in distress would not be alone that night, asking them if they had someone that could stay with them, or somewhere they could go. According to Dr. Halpern, having connections with others during a tragedy is one of the most important parts of coping with trauma, which is an aspect of mental health that he says has become more accepted over the years.

“Just to give a definition, [trauma is] when our abilities to cope are overwhelmed, or assumptions about the world, ourselves, other people are shaken and shattered. So, I’m not talking about a cell phone that you dropped and broke, I’m not talking about a computer that you spilled coffee on. That’s all bad, but it’s not trauma. It’s not the same thing as witnessing planes crashing into a building,” Dr. Halpern said, “and we can help people. We can’t fix it, but we can help people in the aftermath of these types of traumas.“

Dr. Halpern is now a Professor Emeritus at SUNY New Paltz and the Founding Director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health. He specializes in how we can better prepare for unthinkable disasters in the future, so we can take care of ourselves when we experience shock and grief.

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