A survey of two Jewish high schools in New York has found that 13 percent of the students suffer some degree of post-traumatic syndrome or depression stemming from the World Trade Center attack or the continuing terrorism in Israel. Now teachers will be trained in how to identify and best respond to at-risk students, and plans are under way to expand the survey to Jewish elementary school students.
Particularly vulnerable to trauma, according to the survey, are relatively recent immigrants, those who could see the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and those who were exposed in some way to a terrorist attack in Israel.
"Our findings confirm experiences that were uncovered in other studies," said Pinchas Berger, director of Jewish community services at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
"Pretty much 75 percent of people who were exposed to a traumatic experience regain their balance without any outside help," he said. "Of the remaining 25 percent, the majority can rebalance with very time-limited assistance, and the remaining 10 to 13 percent required a more intensive type of help."
Those found to be in a risk category were contacted and told that the Jewish Boardís professionals would do a free follow-up assessment to determine if counseling was necessary.
The survey, conducted at the beginning of the year with a $100,000 grant from UJA-Federation of New York, featured 903 students at two schools in southern Brooklyn. (Some 25,000 students are enrolled at Jewish high schools in New York City.) The students at these schools could see the World Trade Center from their windows or roof.
Of those surveyed, 120 students fell into a risk category. Sixty-six were found to have a high risk for trauma, 17 had a medium risk and 37 had a low risk.
"We were looking for several things, such as anxiety and depression," said Alisha Goodman, the Jewish Board’s coordinator of 9-11 Outreach and Consultation Services. "In order to determine whether someone fell into a risk category, we had clusters of questions. Some asked about their sleeping or eating habits, like have you had trouble sleeping in the last year in relation to the World Trade Center or terror attacks in Israel? Another question was, have you had trouble sleeping in the last month?
"Kids who answered yes to both questions were put in the higher risk category."
The survey consisted of about 140 questions. Students were assembled in the auditorium by class and asked to answer the questions during one 40-minute period. Both schools, coed institutions whose names the Jewish Board promised the schools it would not reveal, administered the survey over a two-day period.
Among some of the other questions: "Did you witness a terrorist attack?" "Were you a victim or do you know anyone who was killed or injured or witnessed the terror attacks at the World Trade Center or in Israel?" "Have you visited Israel or do you have family members in Israel and keep track of what is going on there?"
Those surveyed first obtained their parents’ permission.
"This was a service project to find kids who were affected and arenít recognizing it, to inform the schools how many were affected, and to contact their families," said Dr. Robert Abramovitz, the Jewish Board’s chief psychiatrist and director of its Center for Trauma Program Innovation.
"There are a lot of affected people who don’t seek mental health services, especially after a disaster and terrorism," he said. "This is a useful way to find people who will benefit from mental health intervention and to get to them before they realize they need help."
Abramowitz said such help is needed for youngsters who find their schoolwork is adversely affected, as well as their friendships, relationship with their family and daily functions.
The same survey was given to groups of students in Israel. In addition, students in selected public schools in New York took the survey, minus questions relating to terrorist attacks in Israel.
Berger said the Jewish schools here were selected because they were willing and able to handle the survey and because their students "had a complementary profile" to the ones being surveyed in the public schools and in Israel.
"They are more intellectually oriented, from upper middle class-driven families and they have similar immigrant profiles," he said.
In explaining why relatively recent immigrant students suffer greater anxiety from terrorist attacks, Berger said he likened their previous trauma of being dislocated and immigrating to a scar.
"So if you took a kid who grew up recently in Liberia and brought him here and he then hears a loud explosion while in school, he would be more sensitive to the explosion than the typical American kid," Berger said. "His whole system is on alert because of his previous experience, and if it is touched he will scream out more intensely than someone who has had minimal exposure to danger."
Similarly, the closer students were to the World Trade Center, the more intensely they were affected.
With another UJA-Federation grant of $52,000 approved in July, the Jewish Board and the Board of Jewish Education plans to expand the survey to cover students in one Jewish elementary school in the city. The grant includes plans to train teachers about distress, according to Rabbi Ellis Bloch, the BJE’s director of the department of yeshivot and day schools.
"We are going to train staff members to be able to readily identify students who are suffering from the effects of post-traumatic syndrome and high stress levels," he said. "Surveys show that teachers are not good at doing that."
Rabbi Bloch said stress is triggered not just from major catastrophic events but from such things as a friend’s parent dying. And he said teachers are often first on the scene at a time of students’ stress.
"We plan to train them how to respond," he said. "Social workers and psychologists are available, but a teacher is often the first responder."
Just as students must have a physical examination before they enter school, Berger said he hopes a public health survey would become standard in public and parochial schools to screen for behavioral, mental health or family distress.