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Home > Research Articles > Terror's mental health facets ignored, experts say

Associated Press

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Associated Press

Originally published November 20, 2002

LAS VEGAS - The nation has done too little to prepare for the terror in terrorism - the fear, panic and misinformation that could spread after a biological attack, mental health experts said yesterday.

For every person who gets physically ill from a bioterrorist attack, there probably will be at least 50 to 100 who are so distraught that they cannot function normally in their daily lives, said Dr. Robert DeMartino, who directs the Program on Trauma and Terrorism at the Department of Health and Human Services.

If anything, the number of people traumatized could be much higher, he said. But mental health issues have not been fully incorporated into the huge preparation under way by federal, state and local authorities for a possible bioterrorist attack.

"The lack of preparation has been an enormous frustration for me. People don't think about it. It simply is not on people's screen," said Brian Flynn, an expert on traumatic stress.

The principal goal of terrorism is to terrorize the public, meaning a strong handle on mental health can undermine the terrorists' goals. "Terrorism only wins if you respond to it the way the terrorist wants you to," DeMartino said.

There are also practical concerns. A traumatized public can overwhelm hospital emergency rooms, with people demanding treatment even if they aren't sick. If there's a system to reassure people and help those who are scared, while treating those who might have been exposed to a biological agent, there will be less panic and a more orderly response to chaos.

The experts, who spoke at the BioSecurity 2002 conference in Las Vegas, said that when they raise the issue among their colleagues, all agree that it is important, yet little follow-up occurs.

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun