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'9/11 fatigue' is natural, mental health experts say

Some Americans say reliving the day's horrific events is frustrating and needs to stop.

©Associated Press

September 2, 2002


Some Americans say reliving the day's horrific events is frustrating and needs to stop.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Dare she say it? Donna Nobles is fed up with being made to relive Sept. 11.

The elementary school teacher's aide shared the fear Americans felt that day. She understands the need of families to memorialize loved ones who died.

But she thinks the continuing hand-wringing is radiating an air of weakness to our enemies. And she says it's time to stop.

"Enough is enough," Nobles, 47, says as she prowls the stands at Raleigh's Farmers Market. "We need to realize that life is for the living."

Nobles is far from alone in voicing frustration -- even vehement resentment in some corners -- at what many feel is an unhealthy fixation on things 9/11.

Perhaps some are jaded at seeing entrepreneurs make money on T-shirts, hats, anything with the FDNY logo. Maybe they're sick of digging deep to make donations, only to hear victim' families say the money didn't reach them or that they didn't get enough.

Or it could be posttraumatic stress, the crush of pain and sorrow simply too much to bear.

Callous though some sentiments might sound, mental health experts say "9/11 fatigue" is as natural a response as the waves of patriotism and grief that swept the nation after terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Americans have a hard time living with uncertainty," says psychologist Debra Condren, who has offices in New York and San Francisco. "We want closure. We want quick fixes. In this case, there is no resolution."

Closure is precisely what Brian Pilant craves. "Shut up about it!" the 28-year-old bagpiper from Tempe, Ariz., grumbles when asked about the attacks, plugging his ears with his fingers for emphasis.

When the attacks occurred, Pilant was as shaken as any other American and, like family and friends, was glued to the television.

"I thought it was the end of the world at first," he says.

Now, he says all the sorrow is getting counterproductive.

"I'm not sick of hearing about things that we didn't know that we know now," he says. "I'm sick of the whining and that 'What about the children?' sort of mentality.

"We need to drop it. Talking about things that we can do and take care of, okay. But stuff we can't do anything about -- like the fact that it happened -- we can't change that."

Others, though, say the continued reminders are necessary to avoid becoming complacent.

"Living in Columbus, Ohio, you feel safeguarded in a way and that's not good, because we're not," says Bridget Molloy, 39, who still takes time to read victim profiles when the New York Times publishes them.

"As Americans we have very short memories," Molloy says. "My concern is that people will slip back into a comfort zone. That's when we'll get caught again."

But some feel that we, as Americans, have a nasty habit of overdoing some things and, perhaps, not doing enough about others.

In Evansville, Ind., bank security guard Leslie Barnett notes what he sees as the unfairness of the attention and money given to the Sept. 11 victims and their families.

"What about people killed in (bombings in) Oklahoma or Africa?" says Barnett, 65. "Or what about the servicemen killed whose families just received military life insurance? Somewhere, you've got to draw the line."

Others are afraid to vent their frustrations. They worry how it will sound if they remind people that not all firefighters and cops are heroes, or say out loud that they're weary of widows' tearful interviews.

New Yorker Mark Prindle is one who says it pains him to say so -- but he's tired of hearing about Sept. 11. He worked on the trade center's 104th floor six years ago, and went down to gaze at the smoking rubble after the attacks.

Now, he feels the barrage of news stories and remembrances is making it impossible for the victims' families to overcome their grief.

And in the end, Prindle says, all the attention cheapens the very event it is intended to memorialize.

"Some people here were worried that they might make a national holiday of it," the 29-year-old public relations specialist says. "It'll just be like Memorial Day, where it's like, 'All right. A long weekend. 9-1-1. Let's go to the beach."'

Sam Sears, an associate professor at the University of Florida Health Science Center and a licensed clinical psychologist, says some people might be feeling what is known as "compassion fatigue." It is hard to hold a lot of compassion and empathy for long periods, and events such as the terrorist attacks -- which fill people with sorrow and fears for their own safety -- stretch the capacity to sympathize with others.

"Being empathetic to somebody else takes a lot of work. And, honestly, this is such an event that has evoked such empathy and such compassion that is very difficult for people to feel comfortable," Sears says.

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