Exploring Human Potential

Unhealthy Fears

Posted on | March 9, 2009 | No Comments

There is apparently a great deal we don’t know about the current global financial crisis. But one thing we do know is that people are scared. And when people are scared, they not only make different decisions, but they make themselves sick as well. I will be studying fear levels at the "Woodbury Commons" polling site this month. I encourage you to take the 2 minute "Fear Survey." 1

It wasn’t too long ago that I tackled this issue. Yet, the source point for the fear was different then: 9/11. I was charged to study fear levels in New Yorkers 30 months after 9/11 and again 4 years after 9/11.

The first study of 1,000 New Yorkers 30 months post 9/11 disclosed high fear levels, especially with respect to using mass  transit, and high residual levels of mental illness. It also noted that, while citizens were more vigilant,  they did not see themselves in a position to contribute to a response to color coded warnings. In short, they absorbed the fear, but had little outlet for a constructive response.2 Four years post-9/11, fears over terrorism remained prevalent among New York City residents. Fifty-two percent thought about the possibility of a future attack occurring in the city. Fifty-eight percent worried that they or someone they knew would become the victim of terrorism. Women were more likely then men to be worried about victimization from terrorism. Thirty-one percent of citizens felt less safe than they did after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.3

The suffering from mental ailments following from the events and residual pool of fear persisted as well. Thirty-five percent reported personally suffering depression, anxiety, or mental illness as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Fifty-two percent of those originally affected said they were still suffering from mental ailments. Of those who personally suffered, women, Hispanics and African Americans were disproportionately affected.3 The second study demonstrated that the effects of terror and fear persist, and became a breeding ground for future anxiety and panic.

So what has happened since then? First the country has inherited an additional burden of mental illness as our soldiers return from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. This painful inheritance has multiplied as family and friends attempt to cope and help their loved ones. And secondly, we are now experiencing broad-based financial disruption which threatens jobs, family security, and the ability to provide for the basic needs of individuals, families and communities.

What is as striking  today as when I reported the last 9/11 study nearly 5 years ago, beyond the size and persistence of a fertile pool of fear and reactive mental illness, is that fear remains largely off the radar screen for health planners and managers of homeland economic security . Here is what I believe needs to be done:

1. Fear Management must become a core responsibility of those involved in economic disaster preparedness.

2. A mental health professional with strong public health credentials should be an active team member on local, state, and national levels.

3. All economic recovery plans should include short, medium and long-term plans to manage fear and its mental health fallout.

4. Economic disaster preparedness communication plans, both proactive and reactive, should be rigorously focus tested to assess mental health impacts.

5. A comprehensive public/private multi-media communication program to address residual fear head on and reinforce social confidence and trust should be developed and launched.  

In can easily be argued that what got us into this economic mess was 9/11. The remarkable series of reactive missteps that followed, amplified by a broad-based values collapse throughout our private sector bring us to our present dilemma.  What we now need to recognize is that current fear left unaddressed and reinforced by frequent warnings and flashbacks will not go away. It will persist, especially in the most vulnerable, and eat away at the fabric of society. Our president is doing his part, but he cannot do it alone. We together absorbed the fear. Together we must now confront and rid ourselves of it.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


1. Unhealthy Fear : A Woodbury Commons Survey.

2. Health Politics with Dr. Mike Magee. Fear Management: Post-9/11. 9 June 2004. 

3. Health Politics New York City Terrorism Study 2005: Thoughts and Concerns Among NYC Residents.  28 Sept. 2005. 

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