January 15th, 2009
06:05 PM ET

Plane crash: The psychological impact

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/01/15/new.york.plane.crash/art.plane2.news12.jpg caption="The plane entered the water Thursday afternoon following a failed takeoff, the FAA says."]

Matt Sloane
CNN Medical News Producer

I just spoke with Dr. Charles Raison, Director of the Mind/Body Institute at Emory University, and a Psychiatrist. Here are some quick notes from our conversation:

Dr. Raison said that the psychological impact of an event like this is likely to be overwhelming. He added that humans have an inherent fear of heights, and this is their worst fear come true. He also said that more people die in cars than in planes, but most of us don’t fear driving. Everyone has a healthy dose of apprehension about flying.

Dr. Raison said data show that the people who are “hysterical” now, are likely to the ones with long-term psychological complications. It'ss largely a myth that the ones who are taking it in stride now will “feel it later.”

He said some people will walk away from this experience feeling like heroes, regaining faith in the human condition. Others will look back at how they acted – pushing and shoving – and feel guilty for not helping others. Others will be a complete psychological mess.

See full notes below:

Dr. Charles Raison

Clincal Director, Mind/Body Progam Emory University

– In a stressor like this, some ppl will behave like heroes, come out of it feeling empowered, touched about the human condition.

– Other people may have pushed and shoved acted crazy, and will feel guilty about it.

– Some people will become terrified and will develop PTSD.

– 6 months from now, rates of psych troubles is going to be much higher in this group than normal people.

– Nightmares, fears, terror of flying, may not ever fly again...

– Humans fears are hard wired – hardly anybody scared of driving, but many Americans die that way

– We have an instinctive fear of heights, and even tho people rarely die in plane crashes, we're wired to have a heightened fear response.

– What he'd be looking for if he were counseling these people: immediate predictors of PTSD – a lot of data, people that freak out at time of accident, are most likely to have long term troubles.

– It's an urban legend that people who are "cool under pressure" fall apart later – largely untrue

– People who are really spaced out/dissociated – classic early symptoms of a large trauma – disconnected from reality – strong predictor of nightmares, flashbacks, sadness, PTSD

– He'd be looking for: people extremely upset by it, spaced out by it – at much higher risk of long-term troubles.

– On avg, people who've had a lot of stress before/depression, abuse, addiction – those people are going to have a harder time – those things "prime the pump" – predisposition

– Most people have a fear of flying – and to have your worst nightmare come true, is just an over-the-top stressor.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Airline Safety • Top Stories
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. KJ


    January 16, 2009 at 9:57 am |
  2. Phil

    It is apparent that experience coupled with continuation/recurrent training focusing on emergency procedures is the key to success in abnormal and emergency situations. The entire crew should be praised for their coordinated efforts which resulted in the outcome we are reading about and viewing on the news. It is wonderful that a tragic event leaves us feeling good about what is presently being reported in the news instead of sickening us. It is not often that the psychological impact of a single tragedy can manifest itself leaving either the reader or viewer with a good positive feeling about wide reaching events affecting more than just the actual participants.

    January 15, 2009 at 10:57 pm |
  3. Cristina

    Great ending of what it could have been a tragedy. My daughter is a pilot for Eagle and I am always praying for pilots. Cristina

    January 15, 2009 at 10:17 pm |
  4. Brian Vickery

    Bravo to the Pilot and crew, and all aboard... Done correctly and so well done.
    As pilots we are training ourselves on each flight for .. what if? Captain Sulley reacted just great. Flew the airplane to the only choice he had. He knew Tetoborough was too far. Good for him and Praise to Our Lord. .. amen! B.Vickery Magalia California

    January 15, 2009 at 9:50 pm |
  5. jamie

    Surviving the crash.
    To parrot Sinatra: "Considering the alternative it's not too bad."
    If the psychological repurcusions are too horrific later on, there are other ways to die.
    If you're dead, you're outta options.
    Let's have a little more emphasis on gratitude for trauma-survival and a little less emphasis on PTSD. Thank God for big mercies!

    January 15, 2009 at 8:26 pm |
  6. Arachnae

    People who were on the plane should fairly quickly play a half hour of tetris. Apparently an engrossing eye-hand-motion task performed shortly after a traumatic event prevents the brain from burning in scary memories to flashback upon later. Google 'PTSD Tetris' for news reports of this effect.

    January 15, 2009 at 7:13 pm |
  7. EJ (USA)

    I just know that Law & Order has another true & amazing story to base one of their future episodes on.

    January 15, 2009 at 6:45 pm |