America's Emotional Recovery After Sept. 11

By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 30, 2002; 12:32 PM

Americans have made a dramatic emotional recovery from Sept. 11, with substantially fewer people reporting recent bouts of nervous tension, difficulties sleeping or feeling"dazed and numb" as a consequence of the terrorist attacks, according to surveys by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

At the same time, half of the country still reported suffering at least one of 15 symptoms of Sept. 11-related psychological stress in surveys conducted three to five months after the attacks, said Jennifer Berktold, a NORC researcher, at a recent meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research in St. Petersburg.

Overall, virtually all types of psychological stress measured in the polls were in decline, both nationally and among New York City residents, she said. And some stress symptoms dropped precipitously.

For example, fully half of a national sample interviewed immediately after the attacks reported they they felt "very nervous or tense" as a consequence of Sept. 11. By mid-February, 27 percent of the same people reported experiencing similar feelings in the past week or two.

The decline was similarly dramatic in New York, where nearly two-thirds of people initially reported feelings of anxiety after the attacks, compared to a third by February.

"We expected to see recovery, but not on this level," Berktold said in an interview Monday. "It seems like people are getting better. People have been able to successfully get back to their own lives."

But the news isn't all good. "Blacks don't seem to be recovering like the rest of the country," she said. And levels of stress among Hispanics nationally remain disproportionately high--disturbing findings that Berktold said they can't yet satisfactorily explain.

Berktold and colleagues interviewed respondents nationally and in New York City immediately after Sept. 11, and then reinterviewed the same individuals between Dec. 18 and Feb. 9. The current findings are preliminary, she cautioned.

The surveys included questions that asked respondents whether, in the past "week or two", they had done such things as cried, forgot things, felt unusually tired or "felt like getting drunk" as a result of Sept. 11. In all, fifteen symptoms of psychological stress were measured.

On average, those interviewed had experienced 4.27 separate symptoms of stress in the weeks immediately after the attack. In the second wave of interviews, these individuals reported 2.06 symptoms of Sept. 11-induced stress. New Yorkers reported, on average, 2.42 symptoms, down from 5.32 in September.

Overall, nine out of 10 Americans "did have at least one symptom," Berktold said. "Now, it's 50 percent."

The declines in some types of symptoms were even more dramatic, the researchers found. The proportion of respondents who reported crying recently over the attacks dropped nearly 40 percentage points nationally and in New York. The proportion who said they had trouble getting to sleep dropped 20 percentage points.

Similarly, 44 percent nationally said they had felt "sort of dazed and numb" in the month after the attacks. By February, only 12 percent reported they had recently felt that way.

While many of the declines were dramatic, Berktold and other members of the research team were startled that so many people were still experiencing acute levels of psychological discomfort as a result of Sept. 11.

For example, even though the proportion of people nationwide who had cried in recent weeks dropped from 60 percent to 21 percent, the latest results still suggest that one in five Americans recently shed tears over the attacks months after they occurred.

"It's something we're still trying to puzzle out; we're not exactly sure yet," Berktold said. "In New York possibly, but it was surprising to find that in the national sample because so few people were personally connected" to a victim.

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