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DoD Family Center Outfitted With Mental Health Care Providers

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 17, 2001 – If an airplane cabin decompresses at 30,000 feet, passengers are advised to put their oxygen masks on first, then help someone else.

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Luann Flury, Charlotte Amundson and Dr. (Lt. Cmdr.) Lisa J. McCurry speak about loss at the DoD Family (Casualty) Assistance Center. Photo by Rudi Williams
  

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That's also good advice for mental health care providers when helping families deal with missing loved ones in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, according to clinical health psychologist Air Force Maj. Ronald W. Alexander.

Alexander is part of a team of military and civilian mental health professionals working at DoD's Family (Casualty) Assistance Center. The team was formed to help families and loved ones cope with their losses. There are psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses and child and adult psychiatrists on it.

"We're watching out for each other and the staff, many of whom are Pentagon employees," said Alexander, a clinical health psychologist with the 81st Medical Group at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. "We've got to watch out for ourselves first, because if we don't, we might not be able to help other people."

Many family members, loved ones and friends are stopping by the center's counseling section here at the Sheraton Hotel seeking information. "Some of them are still in a state of shock," the psychologist noted. "We can provide whatever services family members need. We have rooms for private counseling. Family members are still holding onto hope that their prayers will be answered."

Each person copes with the loss of loved ones differently, Alexander noted. "The advice I would give is to first understand that what they're feeling are normal responses in such situations," he said. "We have a bunch of normal people thrown into very abnormal circumstances."

Alexander said many families are feeling things they've never felt before in their lives, both physical and emotional. This includes everything from not being able to sleep, to nightmares, extreme anxiety, worry and extreme anger.

"They may also experience heart palpitations, perhaps, sweating, cold chills all kinds of stuff that may feel very unusual and odd," Alexander said. "All of that is within the normal range of responses that occur in situations like this."

He said people who are grieving should rely on the support of their families, their faith and the DoD team of mental health providers.

Alexander said he visited the crash site on Sept. 15 along with some 350 family members, loved ones and staff to help himself. "I didn't have a family member in the Pentagon, and yet, I did," he said. "Every one of those folks was my family. Psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers have to deal with the situation, too, just like the families, loved ones and friends."

Child psychiatrist Navy Dr. (Lt. Cmdr.) Lisa J. McCurry said there are a number of things that can be done to help a child cope with tragedy. "One of the biggest ones is encouraging them to talk about it at their own pace, but encouraging communications at home," she said.

It's important to provide "age appropriate information" and answer questions honestly without giving to much information for the child to understand, said McCurry, an assistant professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. She's also a child clinical psychiatrist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"Try to maintain a routine as much as possible and get life back to normal in the home," she said. "Depending on the age of the child, spending extra time with them, especially at bedtime can be reassuring."

She said that includes reading to children, playing a game or watching a video with them. "Just increasing the amount of time you're there, especially for children who have lost a parent, they need that other parent right there with them," McCurry said. "More hugs and physical touching is good for younger children they may feel more secure because something like this can shake their whole security."

If a child asks if Mom or Dad is ever coming home, McCurry said if it's known that the parent is dead, it's best to explain that.

"Using the word dead is important," she emphasized. "When people say, 'he's gone away,' children start to be afraid of any time someone goes away. Similarly, if you say, 'grandpa has gone to sleep,' that's the way to create sleeping problems in children, because they're afraid if you go to sleep, you never come back."

When explaining that a person is dead to a four or five year old, it's important to point out that the person is not going to eat, sleep, walk around or play games anymore, McCurry said.

Children in their early teens also need support, but may be less likely to ask for it, she noted. "They may feel like, 'I'm old enough and I don't need any extra help,'" McCurry said. "So it's still really important for the parent to be attuned and available to talk with them."

She said it's also possible that those kids may become at risk and get into trouble. "They may feel that the world is no longer safe, mom and dad can't protect me, so I might as well go off and do X, Y or Z," McCurry said.

The way parents talk to children in their late teens depends on the maturity level of the young adult, she said. "They can understand all the adult information about death, but they may behave a little younger, regress a little bit," McCurry noted. "They may want to do things they haven't done in years, and that's normal for kids of any age.

"Keeping a tight leash on them and encouraging them to talk about their feelings is very important," she said. "Just let them get it out."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Maj. Ronald W. Alexander speaks with Dr. (Lt. Cmdr.) Lisa J. McCurry at the DoD Family (Casualty) Assistance Center. Photo by Rudi Williams.   
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