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April 19, 2012

Bomb threats:

Long-term effects on students

Robert Gallagher, a former director of Pitt’s counseling center and former vice chancellor for Student Affairs, said the stress brought on by the bomb threats could affect some students’ long-term well-being and increase visits to the counseling center.

Gallagher noted that other college campus crises, such as the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, typically have involved a single traumatic incident. “What is happening at Pitt is unusual in that it has raised the discomfort and anxiety level of so many people over such an extended period of time; the long-term effects are uncertain.”

And, while the bomb threats — all of which have been hoaxes — differ from a situation involving actual loss of life, vulnerable people still may feel a psychological impact, said Gallagher who is an adjunct associate professor in the School of Education’s administrative and policy studies department.

“Although most students are probably convinced that the threats will never become anything more than that, I suspect that a number of them will fear that this level of disturbed behavior might escalate and lives may be imperiled,” he said.

Gallagher conducted a national survey of counseling center directors after 9/11 to determine whether those events — which had a heavy emotional impact on many who were far removed from the attacks themselves — affected their counseling caseloads.

Eighty-eight percent of counseling center directors reported a significant increase in demand for counseling services (typically 21 percent) in the months following 9/11.

While some students directly connected their problems — anxiety attacks, nightmares, fear of attending public events, inability to concentrate and focus on their studies — to the tragedy itself, Gallagher said nearly all of the counseling center directors believed that the vast majority of their new clients presented with general and unspecified concerns rather than with problems associated with 9/11.

“Directors believed that many of these problems were brought to the surface due to the climate of fear and vulnerability that followed 9/11. It appeared as if the crisis precipitated or exacerbated dormant symptoms in many students and this increased awareness led them to seek help,” Gallagher said.

“I suspect that there will be a similar reaction among many Pitt students and anticipate a growing demand for services at Pitt’s already busy counseling center.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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