Mental Health and 9/11: Children Were Especially Vulnerable

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, much public attention was placed on the lives lost, as well as the heroic actions of emergency personnel who responded to the attack. Nine years later, two new studies have shown that children who were directly impacted by the event (either through witnessing it directly, or by living with a parent who suffers PTSD as a result of the attacks) have lasting and significant mental health issues because of their experiences.

One study sought to determine which had a stronger impact on preschool-aged children’s psychological well-being: experiencing the attacks first-hand, or experiencing their mother’s psychological problems triggered by the attack. Essentially, it’s a look at whether short term direct exposure or long term indirect exposure to terrorism is more harmful to children. The results showed that the indirect exposure was more harmful. Children whose mothers suffered PTSD and depression had consistently higher rates of depression, anxiety, aggression, and sleep problems.

A second study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, looked at mothers and adolescents from Lower Manhattan schools who had experienced varying directness of exposure to the 9/11 attacks. In this case, almost all had high levels of both depression and PTSD. This indicates that it may not have been just the event itself, but its long-term impact on the entire community, that created adverse mental health trends in those populations. However, first-hand exposure (such as actually seeing the planes strike the buildings) bumped the PTSD and depression rates even higher. Taken together, these studies show that children perceived as ‘too young to understand’ or ‘old enough to be okay’ all are susceptible to depression, PTSD, anxiety, aggression, and sleep problems, even if they didn’t experience the attack directly. Responding to the mental health needs of these children through psychotherapy and PTSD treatment is essentially to helping them establish balanced and health mental habits as they continue to develop.

© Copyright 2010 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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  • Marcie


    July 22nd, 2010 at 2:08 AM

    I thought direct exposure would be more disastrous,but turns out that indirect one can be even more dangerous.We need to help these people get rid of their problems,something that has happened to them due to a national tragedy.

  • Jemma


    July 22nd, 2010 at 4:22 AM

    Another study that relates just how important for mothers to have overall positive mental and physical health and how the negative sides of these can harmfully impact children of all ages. There may have been many of these children who experienced both direct i,pact and that that they had to witness their mothers bear and I guarantee it was what the moms experienced that made the biggest impression. This is what they have had to live with every day and kids sense when things are not right. No wonder it has been shown that this is what has majorly impacted their lives.

  • derrick


    July 22nd, 2010 at 3:03 PM

    it can be very hard trying to explain to a child about death or any tragic event…a cousin of mine lost two little sisters in a matter of two years and he had a hard time understanding why the little angels went away from him and whether they would ever come back…it was very heart-wrenching to see how he reacted and to tell him stories to explain why they went away :(

  • C orwell

    C orwell

    July 22nd, 2010 at 4:30 PM

    my nephew is affected because of this ghastly incident even to this day.he was just five or six then but even today he is scared to fly and does not want to see anything on tv that has to do with 9/11.

  • Ken


    July 23rd, 2010 at 2:14 AM

    ^^ I have heard of such cases before and my sincere recommendation would be that you seek professional help for your nephew.I hope you are not late in doing this but better late than never.Approach a psychologist and he/she will definitely be able to help your nephew.

  • Faith


    July 26th, 2010 at 4:33 AM

    There have been many points in history and maybe even in your own home where the adults did not talk to the kids about things that were going on, that it was decided that they were too young to know what was going on so the best csenario was to ignore it. But kids are way more perceptive than what we give them credit for and even if they do not know exactly what is going on they are smart enough to ick up on something and in my opinion the best thing that you can do to reassure them that things are ok is to talk to them and to be as open and honest with them as you can. That does not mean that they have to be given the entire story but at least enough to satisfy their curiousity and to let them know that no matter what they are safe.

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on