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UNR psychologist uses lessons learned from working with 9/11 survivors



block_n-9419509-9878664A University of Nevada, Reno psychologist who has worked with 9/11 survivors is bringing the lessons he learned to others trying to cope with prolonged grief.

Tony Papa, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, was working on his doctorate degree in clinical psychology at Columbia University under George Bonanno when the 9/11 tragedy occurred. About one month after the attacks, Papa and Bonanno put a call out to people who were in one of the buildings attacked or who lost someone in the attacks.

They interviewed the respondents initially and then again six months and 18 months after the first interviews. Those who needed immediate help were guided to further assistance at “Project Liberty,” a program that provided free counseling and services to New Yorkers following 9/11. The results of Papa’s series of interviews with a few hundred people surprised him.

“It was really amazing how resilient most people were,” he said. “The extreme grief lasted a short time, but then they went on living their lives.”

Papa stressed that grief immediately after death or tragedy is normal but that “prolonged grief” is different and may require professional treatment. He continues to conduct research on prolonged grief at the University of Nevada, Reno. His studies aim to document effective treatment and counseling techniques for those suffering from the condition.

“Prolonged grief is similar to normal grief but doesn’t seem to get better over time,” he said. “It interferes with people’s abilities to function in important areas of their lives.”

Papa said that work on developing a diagnosis for prolonged grief has occurred only in the last five to 10 years. It is marked by an intense yearning for and memories of the deceased, losing touch with social networks, anger and other negative behavior. If untreated, it can lead to substance abuse and even suicide.

Early intervention is key in helping those with prolonged grief, Papa said. In particular, most recently his studies have aimed to encourage behaviors that he saw in 9/11 survivors who were successful in dealing with their grief in others in the early stages of prolonged grief.

The technique he is using is called behavior activation, and there is strong research indicating its effectiveness in treating depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). However, the technique hasn’t been applied or researched in the treatment of prolonged grief.

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