Volume 17 • Issue 27 | Nov. 26 - Dec. 02, 2004

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Dr. Tuvia Peri of Israel spoke to Downtown guidance counselors Tuesday about post traumatic stress disorder.

Israeli trauma specialist advises Downtown schools

By Shivani Mahendroo

An Israeli psychiatrist, specializing in treating children suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, spoke to a group of guidance counselors from Lower Manhattan schools on Tuesday morning at Millennium High School.

Dr. Tuvia Peri, from The Center for Traumatic Stress Disorder at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, discussed how to help children at these schools deal with trauma. He specializes in helping children who suffer from the aftermath of terrorist attacks.

Since 9/11, children in New York have been especially vulnerable to P.T.S.D., and, although the attacks were over three years ago, the effects of the event on many of the children are only surfacing today. Schools in Lower Manhattan, near the site, particularly felt the ramifications of the attacks, and a large number of students continue to suffer from the disorder.

Ivone Garcia, a lecture attendee and guidance counselor at P.S. 131, an elementary and middle school in Chinatown, said that 9/11 completely changed the fabric of the school. “Every day I see children dealing with P.T.S.D. as a result of 9/11,” she said. “The economic effects are really hard on them. Some families lost a parent so the other parent is working two jobs to make ends meet and never sees their kids.” Garcia has seen symptoms arise in children this year who were effected by the attacks but have never shown any indication of stress disorder before. “Their grades are declining and they are becoming socially isolated,” she stated.

Patricia Macken, a guidance counselor at Tompkins Square Middle School on the Lower East Side, said her school was also hit hard by 9/11. “The smells of the debris lingered for months afterwards, and the children were really in pain,” she said. “Even today there are new children suffering who never demonstrated any signs of P.T.S.D. before.”

Alyson Rosenberg, a guidance counselor at Millennium High School, says that stress disorder has afflicted so many children three years after the attacks because as children grow older, they are better able to express themselves. “Some of these children were in elementary and middle school when the attacks happened,” she said. “As they grow older and form their personalities and independence, they finally express what they feel. When children are younger, they don’t know how to explain what is going on inside.”

Dr. Peri explained that after a traumatic event, some children will actually gain something positive from it like realizing a career choice or the importance of certain relationships. However, around 20% will suffer from the stress disorder.

The first step in treating children, he says, is to identify those afflicted with the condition. “To reach out to children who really need treatment and to provide them with individual intervention is essential,” he said. “Schools here tend to emphasize group therapy, but I feel individual is best because no two children are alike.”

Dr Peri also believes that children with P.T.S.D. also need to be taught preventative measures of distress like positive thoughts and temporal mastery. He used a case study of one his patients, a 15-year-old boy named Dov, to illustrate this point. Dov witnessed and was severely wounded in an explosion. When he would try to sleep, he kept hearing noises and imagining a bomb going off. He felt threatened, but Dr. Peri taught him to envision the threat as a past and realize he was safe in his bed.

Another strong preventative measure is relaxation techniques like breathing exercises and yoga. “You need to give your students skills which will help them in life, not just in dealing with 9/11,” he stated.

Dr. Peri strongly emphasized the importance of staff development in schools in order to really reach out to distressed children. “We really need people who can implement these programs in schools, but it is not easy,” he said pointing to the numerous demands placed on teachers and guidance counselors. He feels that teachers, not just guidance counselors, need to be trained in helping children because they have the most access to students.

Dr. Peri’s lecture struck a chord with the audience, especially his point about the need for more individual therapy. Macken said that her school had only offered group therapy to children, but Dr. Peri’s talk made her realize how important individual attention is. “I think, at least on the issue of 9/11, it is better to focus on children as unique, individual entities, and I am going to try to stay away from groups from now on,” she added.

Garcis said, “It is nice to come hear Dr. Peri speak because we don’t get this type of staff development. He really taught me that we must try to get some individual therapy in the school.”

Millennium High School, the first public high school to open in Lower Manhattan since 9/11, already offers extensive individual therapy to its students. In addition to two guidance counselors, the school brought in a social worker from the St. Vincent’s World Trade Center Healing Services to assist children dealing with stress disorder. According to Rosenberg, they see over 100 students a week individually. “When you get to know students one on one, you don’t just cast them off as problem kids if they behave in a certain way,” she said. “You have a chance to understand what they are feeling and where they are coming from.”

The problem of P.T.S.D. in children after 9/11 is so large that St. Vincent’s World Trade Center Healing Services has 25 social workers who are placed in Downtown schools to treat those with trauma related to the day.

Carole Patterson, the Clinical Coordinator of the unit at St. Vincent’s, believes that Dr. Peri’s visit has shown her that children with the condition can really be helped. “He has really validated the work that we do and has given us hope to go on ,” she stated referring to the number of difficult cases her staff handles.

Dr. Peri’s lecture at Millennium is part of a one-week trip to New York sponsored by the St. Vincent’s World Trade Center Healing Services. During his time here, he is speaking to guidance counselors and mental health professionals at schools in Lower Manhattan. “Being here, I am so closely exposed to 9/11 and how it devastated so many lives,” he said. “In Israel, the schools and counseling systems are not related at all, and I like they way they are connected here.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “I am here trying to teach what I know, but I have learned as well.”

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