Cumulative traumatic exposure: Mental health professionals' experience responding to the September 11th terrorist attack

Date of Completion

January 2003


Health Sciences, Mental Health|Psychology, Clinical




Mental health professionals responding to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center experienced the multi-dimensional nature of the trauma on multiple levels. 9/11 exposed them to the magnitude of the trauma on a personal level with their own personal reactions to the disaster and on a professional level as they witnessed and internalized the profound suffering of those whom they were helping. Embodying both a victim and helper, their multiple exposures to the trauma accumulated, exponentially increasing the intensity of the trauma and their resulting traumatic stress reactions. Out of this emergent theme, this study identifies and defines a newly conceptualized characterization of the experience of trauma and trauma response as cumulative traumatic exposure. Cumulative traumatic exposure describes the accumulation of multiple, personal, and professional exposures to the multiple dimensions of a traumatic incident, such as duration, proximity, intensity of victim's reactions, elapsed time between the original incident and the responder's response to it, real or perceived connections with victims, etc. The purpose of this research was to gain an understanding of the essence of mental health professionals' experience responding to 9/11 in an effort to contribute to and extend the existing body of knowledge of trauma response, which mostly focuses on the victims of trauma with little attention on the responders. Using phenomenological design and naturalistic inquiry allowed for the multiple, constructed, and holistic realities of the individual participants to emerge. Out of their realities emerged the essential structures of meaning, or themes, that define their experience responding to 9/11. This research provides a basic but intimate, rich, thick description of these mental health professionals' experience responding to 9/11 that will assist in forming a more complete understanding of the essence of their's and other responders' experience responding to 9/11 and thus, may guide in preparation for and research of future man-made and natural disasters, both nationally and internationally. Implications for future research include issues of pre-incident training and preparedness, screening, the impact of supervision, transitioning back to regular routine post-response, and recovery. ^