Newspaper: The Sentinel
Date: April 11, 1979
Article: For most, the crisis wasn’t that bad
Author: Deb Cline
Three Mile Island hasn’t been all bad.
In spite of increased anxiety, threats of radiation exposure and possible evacuation felt by many and the uncertain longterm economic results of the nuclear accident, local mental health professionals have seen some positive sides to the crisis.
The good things about the accident are most apparent in the way people view themselves and their friends and family and the way people worked together during the most serious moments.
“In crisis, people do evaluate where they are, where they’ve been and where they’d like to go,” said Stephen Coslett, a clinical psychologist and Dickinson College professor.
“That can be a healthy thing for couples and other people, too.”
People re-evaluate, Coslett said, because until a crisis jolts them out of their daily routine, they often get into a rut.
“THEY DON’T ever really step back and take a look.”
During a potential life or death situation, he added, “some things don’t seem so important. (People begin to think) maybe there are some bigger things in life than that.”
John Calhoun, coordinator of Holy Spirit Hospital’s crisis intervention center, agrees crises such as Three Mile Island probably cause people to re-examine their priorities in life.
But he said, “that is an immediate kind of thing. Whether it continues on a long term basis, I don’t know.”
According to David McLane, Carlisle Counseling Center director, TMI may also have jolted people into some other kinds of thinking.
“I have sensed a greater sensitivity on the part of adults to their children because a great deal of the unknown about the accident focuses on children 10 years of age and younger. It has created some enhanced sensitivity to kids,” McLane said.
COSLETT SAW benefits for the entire family during the height of Three Mile Island.
“Families, the ones who left, took care of themselves. They didn’t depend on county or local officials. That sent a real important message to kids,” Coslett said.
“You saw a lot of very busy professional people leaving. It said to the kids, ‘I may be at the office an awful lot , but when the chips are down, we’re here.’
“It said loud and clear, ‘When it gets to push and shove, you guys are first.’ That was a good message for an awful lot of families.
“I was pleased they took care of themselves,” he said. “Being head of a family is a difficult thing. This was one time they acted as a family and did a good job. I like that.”
Coslett believes the fact that people could leave the area if they wanted to was healthy, perhaps cutting down on crisis intervention calls or visits to mental health centers during the crisis.
THE NUMBER of calls to the Holy Spirit crisis intervention center, though, has increased since the crisis calmed, a not altogether unexpected occurrence, according to Calhoun.
Calhoun said the reaction of people during past disasters indicates there is a lull in calls during a crisis, but that calls pick up after the crisis has abated.
“Our work definitely has increased in relation to anxiety related to the event,” Calhoun said.
He said the number of calls may have increased 10 to 20 percent their usual level. They “are mostly an expression of they felt while they were going through it, some uneasiness, nothing drastic.”
McLane said the number of calls taken by the Carlisle Counseling Center’s crisis intervention center has not increased at any point during Three Mile Island. However, they may increase several months from now, depending on the longterm impact of the accident.
“The degree of economic impact will affect the referrals coming to us,” McLane said. “Loss of a job, high utility payments, things like that tend to precipitate mental health problems.”
BUT NO ONE yet knows how serious the longterm impact will be, or if there will be any.
The immediate psychological and emotional reactions of many persons to Three Mile Island included fear, depression, preoccupation with the accident, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, attempts to keep very busy, denial and anger.
Dr. John Mira, associate medical director of the Carlisle Counseling Center, said such symptoms are normal during a crisis but should disappear within a few weeks of the event.
More longterm reactions, Mira said, may be manifestations of latent emotional problems. Or, they may become part of the reactions of already severely neurotic or psychotic individuals.
“Normally adjusted individuals shouldn’t have longterm effects,” he said.
But psychological and emotional reactions would have been expected to be more severe if Three Mile Island had resulted in loss of life or damage to land surrounding the plant.
IF EVACUATION had been necessary, some individuals would probably have reacted with extreme denial, refusing to leave their homes under any circumstances.
“For some people, their home is their source of security,” Costlett said. “Evacuation is very traumatic for those people.” “Although a small percentage, these people would almost rather die on their front porch than leave. Their attitude is, “I pay my taxes. This is my castle. This is my security.”
Coslett believes, however, that most people reacted well to the situation, either leaving if that made them feel better or working on their own contingency plan.
Keeping busy in other ways was another good way to cope, according to Calhoun.
But, he said, “That does not mean you should be blocking out or completely forgetting about what’s happening. It’s out there and it’s real. It’s just as healthy to talk about it and get out your feelings and frustrations and anxiety. It’s always good to do that.”
Coslett believes it is a lot easier to cope with definite news even if it is negative than news that is uncertain.
Frequent conflicting reports about Three Mile Island didn’t help matters.
“What we lack in fact, we make up in fiction,” he said, “and we usually make it up worse than it is.”
MIRA BELIEVES some uncertainty, perhaps fear, will continue until the Three Mile Island accident is at least a year old.
“If they start up the plant again, people will be uncomfortable until one year goes by. If nothing happens then, they will probably be able to accept it.
“There will be some who won’t ever feel comfortable with it, but people tend to forget, especially after an anniversary date goes by,” Mira said.
But although some negative aspects of the accident may remain, Coslett believes the positive attitude reflected in many Three Mile Island teeshirts (I survived Three Mile Island”) may prevail.
“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 trauma in thinking that we coped with the greatest nuclear power disaster in the world and we came out of it okay.”
Editor’s Note: Portions of this story appeared in the Wednesday, April 4, Evening Sentinel.