Alexandra Starr is an Emerson fellow at the New American Foundation.
On a recent evening, 19 Latino immigrants who worked on the clean-up efforts at Ground Zero squeezed into the office of Queens-based psychotherapist Jaime Carcamo. He is a proponent of so-called exposure therapy, when patients describe in detail the memories that haunt them.
One by one, they told their stories about what they saw on 9/11 and the weeks afterward. Many had only gone for psychological help after years of suffering.
“I have nightmares of the cadavers,” said Maria, a Colombian woman, who, like all of the patients who spoke with WNYC, requested their full names not be used.
Maria said she began helping with the cleanup effort six days after the World Trade Center fell — the same day her father died in Columbia. Because she was in the U.S. illegally, she was unable to travel home to attend his funeral.
Many of the patients just recently started seeing Cárcamo, despite suffering for years. And researchers who study posttraumatic stress among survivors of the 9/11 attacks have found that minorities were particularly vulnerable to long-term trauma.
A report found that of 3,271 civilians who evacuated from the World Trade Center and were interviewed, one in three Latinos and blacks suffered from PTSD compared to 15 percent of the entire group.
It’s not clear why minorities were so much more likely to be affected. One issue is that people of these ethnicities are more likely to have lower incomes, and that is a strong predictor of susceptibility to PTSD.
The NY Department of Health Columbia study found survivors with incomes of less than $25,000 a year were eight times more likely to have PTSD than those earning $100,000.
Immigrants who lack legal residence face additional stressors: many jobs are closed off to them and they can live under the threat of deportation.
Cárcamo, the psychotherapist, said the trauma he witnessed as a child in El Salvador during the country’s civil war influenced his decision to become a therapist. Having experienced the phenomenon of being a newcomer in the U.S., has helped him serve his clients, he said.
“I can relate to what they’ve been through,” he said.
A second patient, Arturo, told of the horror he felt when he watched people jumping from the World Trade Center as he sat in a van near the site.
“Did you think it would be your last day?” Cárcamo asked.
“Yeah,” Arturo said. “I did.”
Luis, a Colombian immigrant who witnessed the planes hitting the buildings and then participated in clean up for months afterward, said he’s benefited from unburdening himself by talking about his experiences.
“I was a person who didn’t like to talk about the dead,” he said. “I didn’t want to hear about it. What I’ve learned in therapy is that it’s better to bring that out, rather than keep it inside.”
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act allows some to receive psychotherapy free of charge — regardless of the patient’s legal status.