New York City area clergy are in danger of burning out as they try to keep up with the unprecedented demand for spiritual counsel from hundreds of thousands of residents traumatized from Sept. 11.
And the mental health of both clergy and 9-11 survivors is expected to worsen in the coming months from the continued stress and delayed emotional reactions.
So warn officials from the Disaster Spiritual Care Committee of the American Red Cross in Greater New York, who last week sponsored a daylong conference to help religious leaders understand the scope of the problems and provide strategies to help cope with them.
More than 900 clergy members representing many faiths (rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, Buddhist monks and more) gathered at a Midtown hotel to hear experts counsel on the dangers they face from "compassion fatigue," a condition resulting from the overwhelming stress on them from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
One Red Cross official said the conference, titled "The Lifecycle of a Disaster: Understanding the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on faith communities and their leaders," was one of the largest interfaith gatherings in New York City history.
The conference also featured panels on how clergy can help traumatized children and senior citizens, and how to recognize congregants who may be ingesting too much alcohol or drugs to cope with the mass deaths of more than 2,800 in the worst attack on American soil in the nation’s history.
"A million people will be turning to an overwhelmed clergy," said Rabbi Stephen Roberts, chair of the conference and president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains.
Citing an American Red Cross poll last year showing that 60 percent of Americans turn to their local clergy for spiritual and emotional support (more than their therapists and doctors) Rabbi Roberts said the purpose of the conference is two-fold:
"For many people … we are their first and for many their only, resource which they turn to when they are suffering. This conference is intended to provide information to better help us."
Secondly, he affirmed that because of the time and energy given by clergy "we are one of the most at-risk professional groups for ëcompassion fatigue’ leading to professional burnout. This conference is intended to provide specific knowledge on this phenomena and ways to combat it."
He said by one of the most important issues is for congregation presidents to make sure their religious leader has taken a vacation for at least two weeks since 9-11 or risk burnout.
He noted that the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11 will fall between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (the Jewish Days of Awe) and rabbis should plan to work that into their sermons.
At the conference experts unveiled lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing, where many clergy suffered burnout and left their jobs, and where some victims are still being treated seven years later.
Rev. John C. Wilson, a Baptist chaplain in Chicago, outlined the danger signs of "CF," as compassion fatigue is known, including feelings of not being appreciated, anxiety, guilt, hopelessness, insomnia, depression and bitterness at God.
The treatment, he said, is the same that clergy would counsel for others: exercise, see a movie, laugh, vacation, talk to a member of another faith group. "Go find a rabbi," Rev. Wilson joked. "They love this stuff."
Meanwhile, Rabbi Roberts warned that the impact should be measured in years and the mid-term and long-term effects of Sept. 11 are just beginning to be felt.
"The coming months and years ahead can be some of the hardest times in the lifecycle of a disaster," he said.
Effects of too much drugs or alcohol are just beginning to be seen "as their use turns to abuse. People may begin to feel more and more isolated."
Suicide is also a major concern. "In the last month I have read about three different cases of suicides directly related to the events of 9-11."
He also explained that besides the family and friends of those that died, there will be over a million people with significant spiritual and emotional needs in the coming months, including thousands of displaced residents, tens of thousands who fled the World Trade Center with their lives, and a large group of workers who were in the area and experienced first hand the sights, sounds and smells of the destruction of so many souls.
Rabbi Roberts cited two major medical studies that provides clues to the future:
# An article in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 28 that showed a statistical increase in major mental illness. Researchers estimate that in Manhattan south of 110th Street, there are about 67,000 people with posttraumatic syndrome, and 87,000 suffering from depression.
# An article in the American Journal of Epidemiology published this month indicated that researchers found that two months after 9-11 there was a 28 percent increase in the use of alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes in Manhattan south of 110th Street. "These figures are significantly higher for the tristate area," he said. "It is essential that we understand the true spiritual and emotional dimensions of the attacks of 9-11 for us to plan effectively."
Delivering a talk about preparing for the future, Dr. Ibrahim Abdul-Malik, the secretary of Imams Council of New York, outlined four phases of mourning and said the best contribution religious leaders can make is to lead by example: by "collaborating across religious lines that have kept us isolated from each other."
"As a Muslim, I am especially pleased to be part of these deliberations, for Islam teaches us that the way to conduct our affairs, to settle our differences, to arrive at critical conclusions for our collective benefit, is through mutual consultation."