Bala Cynwyd Psychiatrist Recalls N.Y. Sessions With 9/11 Victims' Families
Ira Brenner counseled at the Pier 94 Family Assistance Center throughout the fall of 2001.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published Sept. 1, 2011.)
As those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan told their stories to authorities and journalists in the weeks afterward, some also confided to volunteer therapists such as Bala Cynwyd psychiatrist Ira Brenner as they processed the tragedy.
The Penn Valley resident had had decades of experience in trauma psychiatry but "really not a whole lot" of first-hand experience with disasters before the attacks spurred him to travel to New York, Brenner told Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch in an interview at his Presidential Boulevard office.
Before he got into the city, Brenner made arrangements to hook up with the group Disaster Psychiatry Outreach for an evening of impromptu disaster-psychiatry training.
"I found it wasn't so easy to just say, 'Hey, I want to help,'” Brenner said. "It took a fair amount of investigative work on my part to find this group. I didnt want to hand out orange juice 10 miles away."
He then spent virtually every weekend for months at Pier 94, the Family Assistance Center, counseling the grieving and shell-shocked as they waited for DNA tests on remains and visited Ground Zero.
"It's psychological first aid and triaging," Brenner said. "It's as much about social services and outreach. Our credentials weren't nearly as important as our ability to make connections."
Brenner and other therapists tried to strike up conversations at the pier, engaging walk-ins for sessions as short as 10 minutes or as long as 90, he said. Breakthroughs could be hard to come by.
"It was all very spontaneous. People weren't necessarily interested in talking about what had happened. They were in shock," Brenner said. "A lot of it was very improvisational—not like sitting in your office."
The psychiatrists at the Family Assistance Center were “deeply affected” by the tragedy, Brenner said, so they made sure to confide in each other, too.
The experience changed Brenner’s approach to treatment, he said, even outside the realm of disaster psychiatry: "It's made me very mindful of the need at times to be flexible under certain conditions." Between his visits to Manhattan, he encountered some complaints of 9/11-related anguish among his Bala Cynwyd patients, too.
The only thing Brenner would have done differently in his post-9/11 treatment, he said, would be to have simply spent more time on it. He is scheduled to return to New York Sept. 23 to give a seminar titled “Dissociation in a Post 9/11 World”.
"For many months (after the attacks), the stereotype we have of 'Nobody gives a damn in New York' felt very different," Brenner said. "These kinds of disasters bring out the best and worst in people.