Newspaper: The Evening Sentinel

Date: April 4, 1979

Title: What are Effects? Living under Nuclear Fear

Author: Deb Cline, Associate Editor


If, lately, you've been depressed, haven't been eating or sleeping normally and have been preoccupied with nuclear disaster, you're not alone.

"Quite a variety of people all experienced the same amount of anxiety," says John Calhoun, coordinator of Holy Spirit Hospital's crisis intervention center. "It has been shared by almost all."

Other reactions may have been attempts to keep busy, extreme denial-illustrated to some degree by people who said they would refuse to leave during any evacuation-and anger of the possible future consequences of the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power generating plant.

Other mental health officials in the area agree such anxiety reactions are appropriate for people experiencing traumatic events-if those reactions are temporary.

Dr. John Mira, associate medical director of Carlisle Counseling Center, says such symptoms, if they occur, should disappear within a few weeks of the event.

More longterm reactions, according to Mira, may be manifestations of latent emotional problems or may become part of the reactions of already severely neurotic or psychotic individuals."

Normally adjusted individuals shouldn't have longterm effects," Mira said.

If there had been a nuclear catastrophe, loss of life and widespread displacement of people from their homes, the reaction would likely have been more serious.

But Stephen Coslett, a Dickinson College psychology professor and clinical psychologist, said unless the situation worsens, peoples' psychological reactions shouldn't be too severe.

"There wasn't really any catastrophe. No one was killed. The ones who were really anxious left," Coslett said.

"We haven't had destruction. We haven't had trauma."

Some experts are comparing the current reaction to that felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

WHILE MIRA doesn't think the longterm effects of the accident will be too severe, he thinks the shortterm reaction may be more serious than in the middle crisis.

"I remember that as a distant kind of thing," he said. "Three Mile Island is in the backyard, I feel like there was a sense of more imminent danger with this."

A more deep-seated and longterm reaction was felt by Americans following the assassination of President John Kennedy.

Mira calls it a national mourning reaction, similar to the mourning people would feel on a personal level if they lost a friend or relative.

"Kennedy was a personal friend on a public level," Mira said. He said the depression, sadness, sleeplessness and crying lasted months for some people.

Comparing that reaction to Three Mile Island, Mira said: "This is a different situation in that we never really concretely lost anything. This is fear reaction caused by symptoms of anxiety."

Both Calhoun and David McLane, Carlisle counseling Center director, said the number of calls coming into their crisis intervention centers has not increased since the initial plant accident last Wednesday.

But Calhoun said if the situation during past floods is any indication, calls reduce during the crisis and increase after it is over.

"We're especially concerned about kids," Calhoun said. "Because they are less able to understand, yet they are just as effected."

"They see the anxiety in their families, they hear things they don't understand, they hear talk of potential radiation damage, of cancer in 20 years. They don't understand it at all."

YET COSLETT believes the fact that people could leave the area if they wanted to during the Three Mile Island crisis was healthy, possibly cutting down on crisis intervention calls or visits to mental health centers.

"They could treat their own anxiety by getting out," Coslett said.

During the past week, people have feared a number of things, exposure to dangerous radiation levels, evacuation from the homes and, perhaps most of all, the uncertainty of the entire situation.

"Uncertainty about it is one of the big things I see," Calhoun said. "Any time people talk about nuclear power, a lot of things come to mind-nuclear weapons, nuclear destruction, nuclear explosion that might make a wasteland of a place."

According to Coslett, the numerous conflicting reports about the status of the situation didn't help.

"What people don't tolerate is the ambiguity," Coslett said. "They want an answer, and there isn't an answer."

COSLETT SAID people often cope better with negative news than with uncertainty.

"What we lack in fact, we usually make up in fiction," he said, "and we usually make it up worse than it is."

Mira agrees the uncertainties-about the effect of radiation, where people would go if evacuated, when they would return and whether officials were telling the truth-increase fear.

He believes some uncertainty, perhaps fear, will continue until the Three Mile Island is a year old. "If they start the plant up again, people will be uncomfortable until one years goes by. If nothing happens then, they will probably begin to accept it."

"There will be some who won't ever feel as comfortable with it, but people tend to forget, especially after an anniversary date goes by."

Coslett likes to think people can get something positive out of Three Mile Island.

"You can make it into anything you want to make it into," he said. "You can make it a growth experience…if you want to read dread and gloom into it, you can do that too. But we grow through stress."

"There is a growth that can come out of human trauma in thinking that we coped with the greatest nuclear disaster in the world and we came out of it okay.