Dr. Judy, Who Counseled Victims of 9/11 and Second Intifada, Shares Lessons on Trauma of Terrorism
As memorial events marking the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks continued across the US on Friday, a clinical psychologist who volunteered at Ground Zero described to The Algemeiner the range of emotions that can resurface for those personally impacted by terrorism — including fears of future attacks.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky served as a grief counselor after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and later treated victims of terror bombings in Israel. But for the first time since 9/11, at her annual physical evaluation this year, Kuriansky said she herself checked the box indicating she felt “emotionally distressed.”
“It is really the first year that I haven’t been able to sleep,” she told The Algemeiner in an interview. “I have night sweats and chills and lots of distracted feelings about the memories of that whole time, and the people that I remember and miss, that I shared all these intense emotions with.”
“I am seeing their faces, hearing their words back to me — from the FBI agent who sat on a pile of rubble, to the fireman crying and being so frustrated that he can’t find his fellow brothers — just telling me how helpless and powerless they feel,” she added.
Kuriansky, also known as “Dr. Judy,” explained that the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, coupled with events like the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, can add to the anxieties and trauma facing first responders.
As a Red Cross volunteer, Kuriansky was one of the mental health volunteers assigned to “the pit” — the massive hole left at Ground Zero — to help first responders including firemen, police officers, rescue offers, electricians and construction workers.
“I was on the night shift and I walked the perimeter,” she recalled as she attended a two-day 9/11 anniversary conference by the Voices Center for Resilience, which supports people recovering from traumatic events. “On some nights it was cold so we handed out gloves and hats just to be there and to talk about feelings.”
Later, she was assigned to the Family Assistance Center to help crying families who lost loved ones.
“We handed out so many teddy bears to children, because there is psychological research about how teddy bears aren’t just cute little cuddly things that you hold — they actually create contact comfort and develop positive chemicals,” Kuriansky explained.
Not long after the 9/11 attacks, Kuriansky was called on to provide psychological first aid after bombings in Israel. One incident was the June 2002 terror attack at the Frank Sinatra International Student Center cafeteria at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in which nine were killed and some 100 wounded.
“I was asked to do some workshops with the teachers and talk about coping with stress, and to also do some techniques,” she recalled. “The experiences of talking to so many people in Israel about terrorism were very meaningful to me because of 9/11 and experiencing terrorism in my own city — so I knew how it felt.”
Kuriansky has also edited and contributed to two books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which collect anguished personal insights and details of psychological trauma from people on both sides.
“That feeds into a psychological principle and research that’s done, that if people work together and play together, that they lose their hatred,” she said. “With all the issues about terrorism, it is about the importance of how to bring different groups together who may hate each other, to understand each other, and to learn each other’s narratives.”
As an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Teachers College, Kuriansky said that as the anniversaries go by, she emphasizes the importance of educating young people about the lessons of what happened.
“This is terrorism and it is evil, just like in Israel,” she argued. “My goal is now to be even more vigilant as a professor about teaching the facts about what terrorism is and not downplaying it.”