Most Mental Health Professionals Hesitant to Treat Victims of Terrorist Attacks

First responders are a critical component to the mental and physical recovery of victims of terrorist attacks. But research has shown that some mental health responders are less than willing to treat the traumatic emotional needs of these victims. “There has been more concern about how individuals can physically survive a major terrorist attack than on psychological survival,” said David F. Ciampi, of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Psychology, Walden University, and author of a new study. “The psychosocial effects that might occur following a major terrorist attack can be significant, so disaster preparedness planning must take into account plans to minimize such effects.”

To evaluate what factors may impair willingness to treat these victims, Ciampi surveyed 255 mental health caregivers from universities, hospitals, community clinics and practices from nine different major cities in the United States. The participants included doctoral-level psychologists, master’s-level psychologists, licensed psychiatrist, licensed mental health counselors and psychiatric nurses. Based on questions relating to anticipated threats and risk evaluation, the study revealed that when the clinicians’ anxiety level increased, their willingness to treat victims decreased. Over 50 percent of respondents reported unwillingness to provide treatment post-disaster, even though nearly one fifth held certifications for just such type of care. “This result did support the presupposition stated by researchers that a common emotional response to terrorism, as with any life-threatening and dangerous situation, is flight,” said Ciampi. “Anxiety, as an affective state, was associated with the derogation of mental health counselors’ motivation and decision making abilities.” Ciampi also discovered that the mental health professionals with the highest levels of religious faith were more willing to treat victims of terrorist attacks, regardless of their anxiety levels. Because of the critical need for this type of treatment, Ciampi hopes his findings aid mental help professionals. He concluded, “The results of this study suggest to me that more needs to be done to help therapists deal with the potential effects of traumatic incidents.”

Ciampi, D. F. (2011, June 27). Anticipated Attitudes for Providing Psychological Services to Survivors of Major Terrorist Incidents. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024475

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • willis


    August 10th, 2011 at 12:45 PM

    I don’t see why treating someone affected by a terrorist attack in particular should be a problem.The article says that the professionals’ anxiety level increases.But wouldn’t a natural disaster have the same effects of anxiety?Then why this scenario in particular?



    August 10th, 2011 at 7:17 PM

    Where is the code f conduct here??
    Victims of such cowardly acts deserve the same if not better leeks of care than others. If you help such people,not only are you roping clients but also working against the work of those cowards!

  • Edwin.B


    August 11th, 2011 at 4:01 AM

    They teach people about how to cope with fear and stress but it seems like they are nt followin it themselves. A terrorist attack should only bring the people closer and together and more willing to help each other. Its very strange that professionals are doing this.

  • Katy


    August 11th, 2011 at 4:47 AM

    Why would someone who supposedly wants to dedicate his life to helping others want to ignore them in their time of greatest need?

  • Cam Siegel

    Cam Siegel

    August 11th, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    They’re perfectly justified in that. A bomb made from ballbearings isn’t going to cover you in small bruises. I’ve read that the massive impact can actually annihilate your organs without penetrating the skin. Anyone who gets caught in an explosion needs to make sure they’re not bleeding internally well before talking to a shrink! Physical health needs to be addressed first.

  • Flame


    August 14th, 2011 at 8:33 PM

    When terrorists attack, it’s something vastly out of the ordinary and shocking to those caught up in it. I think that reluctance to treat would be experienced by more first responders than simply therapists alone.

    Imagine being an EMT at the scene. If I was see a man with a turban or other Middle-Eastern dress after a suicide bombing lying conscious but with no obvious injuries among the wounded, I might think “What if this guy is also a bomber?”. I would probably stay clear of him in fear for my own life.

    I apologize to all those who wear turbans and robes if they were offended by my honesty. I feel the instinct for self-preservation would kick in over any worries about political correctness or bias.

  • daisy cullen

    daisy cullen

    August 14th, 2011 at 9:02 PM

    @Edwin, you have never been subject to a terrorist attack before, have you? The instinctive response to such a horrific event is immediately flight or fight. If it’s a suicide bomber, he’s dead, and his work is done. After that, everyone wants to get out of the area as quickly as they can in case there’s another bomber nearby.

    You see, violence in real life is completely different from violence in movies and videogames. You’re perfectly safe watching a movie, but when it happens for real, your instincts will take over as well the herd mentality.

  • Russell T.

    Russell T.

    August 17th, 2011 at 1:25 PM

    An attack like that is just like in Japan where the earthquake happened. Whether man-made or natural, people have to deal with it. There was death and chaos but they got back on track quicker than any country imagined they could because they had in part been ready for it. The building codes of Japan minimized the damage, they resolved the crisis’ effects to the best of their ability speedily and returned to the normality of their lives as fast as possible. If an earthquake happened in London, the entire city would be leveled and panicked because they have taken no steps to prepare for that freak happening.

    So why can’t the therapists that these people are counting on be just as well prepared for that rare eventuality and forward thinking as a Japanese building code committee? Forewarned is forearmed.

  • Berry S.

    Berry S.

    June 30th, 2015 at 9:08 PM

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