A city on the brink of a nervous breakdown

Terror in America: Counselling
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The Independent US

It was more than a week since the twin towers crashed to the ground in downtown Manhattan crushing thousands of people, but the elation for this young police officer was instant. There in the rubble, he saw a foot and a spine. He scooped them up and rushed to the makeshift morgue near by.

"I was really happy," he said later to Dr Rich Levenson, a psychiatrist who has been volunteering his spare time since the disaster to the Police Organisation Providing Peer Assistance [Poppa] – a group that provides emotional counselling to members of the New York Police Department.

Dr Levenson was puzzled. The officer asked, "Don't you get it? The foot and spine meant that one more body would be identified."

What he was saying made sense. While more than 5,400 people were still missing from the buildings, hardly more than 200 of them had been found and identified.

But for this young man – who had been a patrolman, walking the beat in Manhattan until the tragedy of 11 September – the moment of excitement quickly passed and the horror of what he had found sank in. He crumpled and did what many thousands of New Yorkers have been doing over the last few days, whether they were rescue workers or just witnesses to the carnage – he sought grief counselling.

There are now scores of counselling operations, almost all of them free, available to anybody who wants it.

The American Red Cross has stationed counsellors at transportation hubs in the city, trained to look out for anyone who may have strain written on their face.

"I've seen a lot of glassy eyes," noted Ellen LaCroix, a trained therapist who has been patrolling the Wall Street area this week.

Many of those who were close to the incident, either literally or through friends and relations who experienced it, have also been able to find help through the companies that used to lease space in the twin towers. Many of them are still advertising free counselling in the newspapers, with sessions being held daily in places like hotels and bookshops.

Poppa has been given space deep inside the New York Federal Reserve building, an intimidating stone fortress that sits on Maiden Lane, just blocks from where the Trade Centre used to stand. It is headed by a former police officer of 33 years, Bill Genet. Yesterday, he sent volunteers to the area around "the pile" with leaflets for officers at work.

"It is very common, in fact quite normal, for people to experience emotional aftershocks when they have passed through a horrible event," the leaflet stated.

The first officers to come in, Mr Genet said, were those who were actually at the site when the buildings collapsed but survived themselves.

They were all in "very rough shape" and have been referred to other professionals. Partly it was their sense of powerlessness in those awful minutes "because of their inability to save the people all around them who were dying".

Dr Levenson says his own private practice in the city has been overwhelmed in the last seven days. Many of his patients have expressed the same thing – the feeling that they are "useless", he said.

"People have started to feel driven to do something to help with the situation anything at all. But when they try to volunteer often they are turned away," he said.

Dr Bruce Grellong, also a psychiatrist, is in charge of the seven drop-in counselling sites that have been set up across the city by the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services. The number of people asking for help to cope with shock is picking up, he said.

"I think as the first numbness of what happened wears off, more people are realising they need some kind of assistance," he said.

As for the young officer who found the spine, he stayed with Dr Levinson for a few minutes, cried a little, then decided to pull himself together. Yesterday he was back on the pile.