Volunteers handling the dead after Oklahoma's 1995 terrorist bombing are more resilient than thought

December 15, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Stress reactions are known consequences for those handling the dead after a disaster. But, in a new study, posttraumatic stress and depressive symptoms were surprisingly nonexistent after two years for those individuals working with deceased victims after the Oklahoma terrorist bombing. This was true even for those dealing with people who they knew that were killed. This finding is reported on in the December issue of American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Results of a survey of 51 of the individuals handling the human remains after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing showed unexpectedly almost no posttraumatic stress and depressive symptoms two years later, said lead author Phebe Tucker, M.D., of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. Tucker and co-authors, who were affiliated with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Oklahoma City also found that symptoms reported a year after the bombing had decreased significantly over time compared to symptoms reported at the time of the disaster.

Those handling the victims included career medical examiners, pathology residents, dental residents and students. According to the study, being female or younger, increased physical exposure to the bombing, knowing a victim, having less professional disaster experience nor having more (cumulative) personal disaster experience were associated with greater posttraumatic stress symptoms.

The occurrence of new physical problems, increased alcohol use and seeking mental health treatment were the only factors associated with higher posttraumatic stress and depression symptoms among those handling the victims. Having social support, being able to translate unpleasant situations into meaningful ones, having on-site critical stress management and debriefing and a strong sense of community could be why these rescue workers appeared so resilient. "Debriefing is seen as a controversial treatment in the scientific literature, with some studies saying that is works and other studies saying it doesn't work," explain the authors.

Being well-educated and having medical experience may have the body handlers' resilience. "It is important to know how the people who end up handling victims in a terrorist attack cope and not suffer serious emotional consequences especially since terrorist events are increasing among civilian populations and civilians are going to be asked to help," said Dr. Tucker.
Article: "Body Handlers After Terrorism in Oklahoma City: Predictors of Posttraumatic Stress and Other Symptoms," Phebe Tucker, M.D., Betty Pfefferbaum, M.D., J.D., Debby E. Doughty, Ph.D., and Sara Jo Nixon, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center; Fred B. Jordan, M.D., University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, State of Oklahoma; Dan E. Jones, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Oklahoma City; American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol 72, No. 4.

(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at http://www.apa.org/releases/body_handlers_article.pdf)

Phebe Tucker, MD can be reached by telephone at (405) 271-4488 or by email at phebe-tucker@ouhsc.edu

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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