650 Social Workers Attend the Chapter's Meeting of the Profession: In the Shadow of the World Trade Center Disaster: From Trauma to Recovery
The sweet, clear voices of the Children's Aid Society Chamber Ensemble filled the Hunter College Playhouse at an extraordinary event organized by the New York City Chapter. The theater was packed to standing room only capacity by 650 social workers that came to listen, learn, and connect with one another during a period of tremendous shock and uncertainty about the future.
The large turn out was a powerful expression of social work's need to establish a sense of community in light of the terrible events that have transpired. Crisis has historically presented an opportunity for the profession to define itself. This meeting strongly demonstrated that social work is poised to be at the forefront in addressing the concerns of individuals and groups impacted by the disaster.
Keynote speaker Dr. Sandra Bloom, Past President of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies and President of the Physicians for Social Responsibility (Philadelphia Chapter) provided a framework for understanding the impact of the disaster and for working with trauma victims. Dr. Bloom said " Trauma is about violation and we have been violated. Events are still unfolding. We cannot think clearly about recovery yet. Instead we have to focus on coping, on functioning, on keeping our feet moving so that we don't get stuck in time. Because that is what trauma does. It keeps a person stuck in time, trapped in the looking glass, slowly sinking in quicksand. Our job is to keep as many people from getting stuck in the goo as possible."
Describing the task ahead, Dr. Bloom noted " As helpers, our job is to support coping and minimize harm. The challenge comes when someone's coping skills don't agree with our own, seem strange or foreign or aggravating. There will be many different perspectives on what coping means. You must support coping and the continuation of functioning whether you agree or not with the other person's coping skill. Some people need their anger; others need to march for peace. Some go numb, others become hysterical. As long as they are functioning and not becoming destructive to themselves or others, congratulate them and offer them some simple tools, education, and encouragement." Dr. Bloom predicts that social workers can expect to see increased family and community violence and substance abuse Judy Rogers, CSW, educator, trauma expert and former Associate Director of Social Work for Psychiatry, Harlem Hospital, spoke about cumulative trauma, focusing on those that already live on society's margin and/or have a history of trauma. The homeless, the mentally ill, refugees who come from war torn countries are likely to be at higher risk for traumatic symptoms subsequent to the September 11th attack. Recovery will be more difficult.
Ms. Rogers said that vulnerable populations may be over looked by society and reminded the audience that the distinction between the "worthy" and "unworthy" is rooted in the history of social welfare policy. In the aftermath of the trade center attack, services may not be equitable. Services and access to services differ based on whether society views a victim as "worthy or "unworthy". While loss and grief are universal experiences, some people victimized by the trade center attack may be viewed as "worthy" of the publics outpouring of compassion and support.
In contrast, there are people whose stories we are less likely to hear, people for whom the fundraising efforts are not directed. Ms. Rogers related that an African American student at a community college lost a brother and aunt at the trade center. His mother, immobilized by grief, could not get out of bed. Three weeks after the disaster, neither he nor his mother had been to the family support center to declare the missing or to apply for benefits.
Ms. Rogers said that her 25 years of working in Harlem taught her that people who live on the margins of society are often less likely to reach out for help.
Emira Habiby Browne, Executive Director of the Arab-American Family Institute, spoke movingly of the impact of the attack on her community "Many Arab- American children have been afraid to go to school and some have been beat up" she said. Arab-Americans are being harassed and many are isolating themselves. Ms. Browne urged the audience to reach out to members of their community that are of Middle Eastern descent. During the question and answer period, one social worker said that her father is Arab and she thanked Ms. Browne for focusing on the issue of bias.
Amy Dorin, ACSW, Senior Vice President for Behavioral Sciences, F.E.G.S., forecasts that mental health needs will be vast in the coming months and will include wide spread depression and the long-term impact on children. Quoting from an article by Dr. North, Ms. Dorin said, " the terrorist attacks can be expected to generate unprecedented mental health consequences. Our mental health system does not have the necessary resources in place to meet the onslaught of psychiatric disorders anticipated".
The evening was moving and educational. The sense of community among social workers was uplifting for many. Cards were distributed by the Chapter asking about interest in volunteering in disaster relief efforts. The response was an overwhelming "yes". Social work is squarely front and center in helping our City heal.