The Trauma of a Near-Miss

Couple looking at disaster zone.

Data from 9/11 reveals that survivor’s guilt is real.

We tend to think of survivors as lucky, but a new study led by University at Buffalo psychologist Michael Poulin shows that people who narrowly avoid disaster do not emerge unscathed. In other words, says Poulin, “There is a misfortune to being fortunate.”

The trauma of surviving

Utilizing a 1,433-participant sample provided by an online research company, the study asked people about their experiences on 9/11.

Participants who reported near-miss experiences—things like “My brother-in-law who works on the 90th floor called in sick” and “I got a job in the World Trade Center a couple months before and didn’t take it”—were more likely to experience sudden, traumatic memories of the event over a three-year period, and reported higher levels of probable PTSD.

The findings, says Poulin, deepen the understanding of how large-scale trauma affects mental health.

“I think this study contributes to a broader debate that people are having in the world of psychology about what counts as being exposed to trauma,” he says. “This is also something clinicians should continue to be aware of in terms of evaluating their clients’ mental health. It’s not just ‘Did this happen to you?’ but ‘Did something almost happen to you?’”

Filling a gap

A dearth of empirical evidence on the subject of survivor’s guilt was a motivating factor for Poulin and his co-author. Even so, when 9/11 happened—providing a perfect study sample—they were loath to pursue it. “It was too raw and painful to think about a psychological study,” Poulin says.

But then media outlets began speculating on its psychological effects, with no research to support their commentary. “What we originally considered to be exploitative suddenly appeared to be necessary,” says Poulin. “This was something that needed to be studied.”