A College Community's Vicarious Stress Reaction to September 11th Terrorism

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Abstract

This study examined the effects of vicarious exposure to the September 11 terrorist attacks in an academic community, just after the three-month period that delineates acute from chronic posttraumatic stress. An entire academic community of 1693 students, faculty, and staff was surveyed electronically regarding their perceived stress symptoms and coping behaviors. The survey yielded a 37 percent response rate. About 76 percent showed one or more substantial symptoms of stress, and 32 percent showed three or more. The most prominent symptom clusters involved persistent avoidance and persistent arousal. Respondents primarily relied on coping through optimism, reassessing priorities and relationships, giving and receiving support, and becoming better informed on terrorism-related topics. Differences in symptoms and coping preferences were found based on sex, group (student, faculty, staff), and exposure to previous crisis. This study indicates that despite time and distance from the site of the terrorism, all segments of a college community continue to experience some degree of distress. Such distress can interfere with academic performance, personal health, and relationship stability. Rather than rely on formal support service delivery, most appear to rely on established interpersonal relationships. This suggests that providing support to vicarious victims in the future might emphasize training for friends and family, rather than relying on established service delivery systems.

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