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Published: Tuesday, 10/2/2001

'We're all victims' of terror, mental health pro says

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Three days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Dean Sparks was in New York, counseling survivors, witnesses, and family members of those killed in the attack.

As a member of the Red Cross disaster mental health team, he listened as people poured out feelings of grief, terror, anger, and guilt. And he watched, over several wrenching days, as hopes dimmed for finding loved ones alive in the rubble. “We began to become worried about some of the people, because they weren't taking care of themselves,” he said yesterday. “They weren't sleeping or eating ... because they were so stunned, if you will, by what had happened to them.”

Mr. Sparks, executive director of Lucas County children services, was familiar with such trauma. As a trained disaster mental health counselor, he had assisted victims of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

And, more recently, he had heard Toledoans express - with equal intensity - the same fear and bewilderment over the terror strikes.

“We're all victims,” Mr. Sparks said. “Whether we're in New York and Toledo, we're going to feel like that. We're going to feel like we're victims.”

Locally, mental health professionals said many of their clients have struggled with powerful reactions to the violence, especially the images of the airline attacks on the twin towers in New York.

Christopher Layne, a West Toledo psychologist, said a patient he was visiting yesterday in Cleveland became agitated at the sight of that city's downtown skyscrapers.

“He expressed a lot of fears about seeing the Cleveland skyline,” Dr. Layne said. “He's a country guy, and he immediately thought about airliners plowing into buildings.”

Mr. Sparks said the death and devastation traumatized Americans hundreds and thousands of miles from New York and Washington.

“It was an intense, intense feeling everywhere in this country,” he said. “Our government offices shut down. Our schools closed.

“That wasn't out of fear. That happened because we were so traumatized, we needed to be with people we loved and cared about. We needed to be with our families,” Mr. Sparks said.

Charlene Cassel, chief psychologist with Harbor Behavioral Healthcare in West Toledo, said the reactions of her clients have varied. Some people want revenge, others want to help, and others want to protect themselves. “The adult clients I've had have been like most of us, in shock, wondering what's going to be next,” Dr. Cassel said. “I think I've seen adults with more fear than the kids. You hear people say things like, ‘Boy, I'm never going to ride in a plane again.'”

Sherry Krieger, vice president of marketing and development for the Connecting Point, a Toledo counseling service, said some people are struggling to regain a sense of security and routine.

“Particularly for parent groups that we have had call, they're asking, ‘How do we feel safe, and how do we get back to ... normalcy and feel OK about spending money, about laughing,” she said. “Just a lot of post-traumatic stress issues are kicking in. People were in shock for so long.”

Mr. Sparks, who spent nearly two weeks in New York, said he was affected personally by the people he met. He, like the people he counseled, had trouble accepting what had happened.

“The loss of life was so severe, and somebody did this,” he said. “This was not an earthquake. Somebody did this, and that made it all the harder. And frankly, there were times I had to go talk to one of my colleagues, and we'd support each other.”

He worked up to 19 hours a day and had trouble leaving his work behind at night.

To relax, Mr. Sparks took a walk each morning. At night, he read from a novel and wrote down some of his thoughts and experiences in a journal.

“I'd get home, to the hotel, and be unable to sleep for several hours,” he said. “I think we all had secondary trauma reactions.

“It's extremely important to take care of yourself in that situation, to try to rest, to eat. ... I called my family every other day and talked to my wife and daughters some, and that helped.”



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