Women who faced everyday work stress were particularly vulnerable to symptoms of anxiety and increased alcohol consumption following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, according to a new study published by psychiatric researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The study is published in the November issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Drawing on data from a longitudinal survey on workplace stress in both men and women, the researchers found that women who reported sexual harassment, general abuse or powerlessness in their jobs were more likely than men to suffer mental health consequences after Sept. 11.
"The term I use is 'cumulative adversity,'" said Judith Richman, lead author of the study and professor of epidemiology in the UIC department of psychiatry. "The major trauma of Sept. 11, combined with everyday stressful experiences, functioned to damage these women's psychological well-being."
"Feelings of powerlessness and victimization on a massive scale in this one apocalyptic moment were compounded by the feelings of powerlessness generated by the daily experiences of interpersonal victimization," Richman said.
Richman's longitudinal study began in 1996 and continues today, focusing on workplace and other life stressors and their impact on psychological health and alcohol use.
In 1996, 1997 and 2001, surveys were mailed to over 2,000 men and women employed or previously employed by an American Midwestern urban university. When the surveys for 2001 were returned before and after September 11, Richman realized she had an ideal data set for dissecting the effects of the terrorist attack on a variety of psychological factors, including depression, anxiety and a variety of drinking patterns.
"We had before and after data on a wide range of psychological outcomes, allowing us to evaluate specific impacts from September 11 on mental health," Richman said.
Richman used three measures of workplace stress: lack of decision-making authority on the job, sexual harassment, and generalized workplace abuse, such as disrespectful behavior and isolation or exclusion.
Female participants who returned their questionnaires (and presumably filled out their questionnaires) after Sept. 11 rather than before were more likely to report increased consumption of alcohol, as well as escapist motives for drinking alcohol, if they were suffering stress at work. They also reported feelings of anxiety, though not depression.
By contrast, men experiencing stress in the workplace showed none of the measured health effects following Sept. 11.
Richman, who is continuing to study the psychological impacts of terrorist incidents and fear of terrorism, believes that her work will help officials allocate resources to handle crises.
"To the extent that mental health resources are limited, this research will help professionals target those people most vulnerable to psychological distress following a major terrorist incident," Richman said.