Low Plaza

Psychiatrist and Trauma Researcher Calls on NYC to Recover a Sense of Place

By Jo Kadlecek

Mindy Thompson Fullilove

On a crisp November Saturday, Mindy Thompson Fullilove buttoned her coat and headed to Washington Square Park, a woman on a mission. As a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health, and co-director of the Mailman School of Public Health's Community Research Group, Fullilove was intent on helping New Yorkers begin the recovery process after the Sept. 11 attacks. She had helped organize the rally, and despite the cold weather, was ready to hear the children's choirs, poets and speakers who had been invited to participate.

She was not disappointed. Almost 500 people from a variety of organizations and neighborhoods gathered at Washington Square Teen Plaza to collectively usher in the healing process. They listened intently to music and to speakers such as Allan Rosenfield, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health, Rev. Alfonso Wyatt of the Fund for the City of New York, Emira Habiby Browne, director of the Arab-American Family Support Center, and Fullilove herself.

The Rally for Recovery was the first event planned by NYC Recovers, a collaborative response to the Sept. 11 disaster spearheaded by Fullilove. NYC Recovers was formed to partner with health agencies, community organizations, corporations and small businesses, and individuals to "help New York City heal after the massive trauma our community has suffered." The alliance has planned a year of activities that include workshops on stress prevention, seminars on current issues and conflicts, conferences to support the work of community leaders, and a Walk for Recovery. The goal? "To get each and every organization thinking about what their contribution can be to the recovery process," Fullilove said.

Fullilove identifies four parts to the process: remembering, or mourning the lost; respecting, or working for social justice; learning, or growing from the inevitable new situations, and connecting, or forming bonds across groups. Each element helps rebuild in people a sense of place, something that the disaster radically altered, Fullilove says, and something that is further complicated because jobs, relationships and routines have had to be reconfigured since.

"Everyone has a relation with place—it's universal. But violent displacement is a shocking rupture to the person-place connection," she says. "The trauma of the Twin Towers is a spatial event that has such magnitude and disruption on the socio- and economic landscapes of the Metro region, that to repair it, everyone will have to be conscious of the healing."

A long believer in what she calls the "psychology of place," Fullilove has studied communities for almost 20 years and trauma's impact on them for the past seven. Particularly interested in the effects of place on residents of inner city communities, Fullilove and her husband, Robert, an associate professor in the Mailman School of Public Health, were among the first public health researchers to link Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with urban life in general and crack users in particular. PTSD is usually diagnosed in war veterans but the Fulliloves identified its symptoms when they began studying the effects of decaying urban neighborhoods in the early 1990s.

"There was an escalation of diseases of all kinds including trauma as a result of the collapse of inner city communities," Fullilove says. "There were epidemics of AIDS, crack and violence in the early 1990s and in this context we tried to understand the larger structural problems that contributed to these issues. My part (in the research) came to be the psychology of place, asking how the collapsing neighborhood became associated with such ill health."

Fullilove—who is one of only a handful of African Americans in the country who holds full professorships in psychiatry—went a step further in her research when, in 1999, she decided to explore the role of place in her own life. She wrote "The House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place" (Univ. of Nebraska), a combination of a memoir and academic analysis of the spatial relation to personal development. The book is based on her own life, growing up in New Jersey the daughter of a passionate African American labor activist and a generous white mother who tried to guide her through the maze of childhood. The essays in her book reveal the psychological importance of place in the life of an individual, but it is a personal study of how the actual places in Fullilove's life— schools, houses, streets, rooms—shaped her worldview and self-perception.

Fullilove's interest in the effects of place seems to have grown stronger since her book came out. Last year she received a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Investigator Award to look specifically at how urban renewal efforts funded by federal initiatives in the last 50 years disproportionately affected African Americans. In fact, she was just digging into the project when the World Trade Center was attacked. And certainly, Fullilove's experience studying the effects of trauma on communities prepared her for the moment. That's when NYC Recovers was born, and though she will spend the next year researching, she will also spend her time at rallies and workshops helping a traumatized city find its place again.

Published: Dec 12, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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