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September 27, 2001

Using support systems, taking action are coping strategies that can be helpful

There's no clear blue- print for getting back to normal after a disaster such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but there are strategies for coping, according to a Pitt expert in intergroup relations.

"Limit the amount of coverage you're watching, even though it's addicting and engaging," said Audrey J. Murrell, associate professor of business administration at the Katz Graduate School of Business who holds a doctorate in social psychology. "Coverage is hard to avoid," but too much exposure wears on the psyche.

For office staff, it's helpful in recovering from a crisis to use the support systems in place, including relying on the solace of co-workers and the support of counseling services and employment assistance programs (EAPs).

"Talking about it with co-workers is supportive," Murrell said. "People are asking themselves what should they do, and it helps people to do something as a group: It combats the helplessness people feel."

Staff in the business school decided to take up a collection for the victims' families, painting their collection cans red, white and blue, she said. "They planned it together. That helps with the emotions and the anxiety to channel them into a structure. It's a process. It's not a switch you throw."

In the classroom, faculty should be alert to signs of post-traumatic stress among their students, Murrell said. "There is a time and place for dealing with this in the classroom. First, the most obvious way is to find the teaching connection, depending on the field, for how the subject matter relates to the tragedy."

Second, faculty should allow students to talk about what they're thinking, especially when the events are so recent. "This tragedy is on everybody's mind and there is a common connection in the classroom with that recognition," she said.

"Third, faculty should be aware of individual signs in their students: lack of concentration, fatigue, signs of emotions — and talk to those students [privately]; urge them to get counseling. The biggest key is to not allow students to become isolated."

From an organizational standpoint, Murrell said, companies with the best employee assistance programs will have the best chance to succeed in overcoming the effects of this disaster. "Especially those who have to downsize due to economic conditions that were altered by this. Organizations without strong EAPs, or that don't pay attention to this, will find devastating long-term effects on employees: stress, depression, alcohol abuse. Organizations need to realize the employees can't do it alone. They need support during these times."

Murrell acknowledged that the events of Sept. 11 are unprecedented in their effects. "In some respects this event is unique in terms of dealing with it, because it was on our own soil and, I think, there's a saturation of information, with all kinds of details, that's affecting people dramatically. I see an across-the-board insecurity."

Moreover, what it means to be back to normal may have new boundaries, she said.

"How much we interact with others as individuals is now called into question. We pride ourselves on being an open society. We say we're a melting pot, of race, ethnicity, religion. This attack challenges our fundamental beliefs, and we have to ask now, 'How open should be we be?' "I heard one common theme repeated many times: 'I have a sense of loss; things will not be the same,' people are saying. The very freedom we enjoy is one of the things that's been damaged. Now we have to balance protecting ourselves with what we're losing in the way of freedom, and we have no infrastructure here to deal with that. I think that's why the president created a new cabinet post (Office of Homeland Security)."

Looking on the bright side, Murrell said that a new sense of normalcy could bring communities together. "I think long-term it's a time for communities to re-define themselves. I was happy to see [county chief executive] Jim Roddey offering job reference assistance to those displaced by US Airways, for example. This corporate/county collaboration, offering training and support, is a good thing. I think that given that this tragedy happened, let's have partnerships, let's promote multi-sector partnerships."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 3

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