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Ghafoori Research Focuses on Anxiety Following 9/11 Attacks

Published: September 15, 2009

Bita Ghafoori of Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling recently saw the end of a $20,000 grant she received in 2007 from the National Institutes of Mental Health through Dartmouth College to support her research into disaster mental health. As a result of her research, she published a paper on generalized anxiety following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the leading journal in the field of traumatic stress and the official publication of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most studied mental health issue that results from a traumatic experience. PTSD focuses on the trauma itself (the 9/11 attacks), while general anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms are more diffuse and characterize uncontrollable anxiety over many things. A unique aspect of Ghafoori’s research is that she investigated a problem that many people suffer from, but is less studied in the research literature.

“The paper concluded that people did develop generalized anxiety symptoms following the attack,” said Ghafoori, who joined the university in 2005. “Little is known about the mental health impact of terrorism beyond PTSD and depression. The associations between exposure to the 9/11 attacks in New York City and generalized anxiety disorder symptoms were examined in a sample of 929 primary care patients. After controlling for PTSD, depression, panic and substance use disorders, and pre-9/11 trauma, patients who screened positive for GAD symptoms were roughly twice as likely to report having a loved one at the 9/11 disaster site, twice as likely to know someone who was killed by the attacks, and twice as likely to know someone who was involved with the rescue/recovery efforts after the disaster.” The article went on to discuss the implications for treatment and future research.

Ghafoori explained that the grant was intended to increase the quality and utility of disaster mental health research by informing, advising and mentoring disaster researchers. She worked with a senior level researcher at Columbia University who served as a mentor to her over the two-year period. The grant provided opportunities for statistical training, participation in professional conferences and collaboration on research projects.

Ghafoori feels one reason for her proposal’s acceptance was her long experience in researching trauma. “Trauma is anything that causes an individual to feel frightened, horrified or helpless enough to develop a different state of awareness,” she said. “That could be anything from a motor vehicle accident, a terrorist attack or being a victim of hurricane Katrina.”

Bita Ghafoori
Photo by Victoria Sanchez
Bita Ghafoori

She earned her B.S. in Biological Sciences from UC Irvine, her M.A. from Pepperdine University, and her Ph.D. in psychology in 2000 from the California School of Professional Psychology. Her dissertation described how cognitive-behavioral therapy helps reduce disruptive behavior disorders. Prior to coming to CSULB, she served as an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at The UC San Francisco Fresno Medical Education Program and as a staff psychologist at the Veteran’s Administration Central California Healthcare System in Fresno.

Ghafoori continues her trauma research at CSULB. She is currently conducting a study at the campus Educational Psychology Clinic investigate various reactions people have after they have experienced a trauma. In addition, individuals who are seeking psychotherapy for trauma-related distress may be eligible to participate in Ghafoori’s of three treatment approaches.

The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) accepted her proposal to speak about her model for disaster response before their national conference in Sacramento this October. It will be her first presentation before the AAMFT.

–Richard Manly