WASHINGTON, DC —Primary care providers, viewed as the nation’s de facto mental health system and often the first line of response to the anxiety, trauma, and depression associated with terrorist attacks, will now get some critical help of their own, thanks to a new national health initiative by America’s HealthTogether with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Initial research about the first wave of psychological responses to September 11 found that, in the immediate aftermath, 44 percent of American adults experienced “substantial” stress symptoms such as sleep disturbances and difficulty concentrating. For half the patients who suffer from mental health issues, their first stop is their primary care physician. Yet family doctors, pediatricians, nurses, and emergency room providers often lack the training, time, and familiarity with mental health problems they need to effectively deal with this mental health crisis.

” All the information about the impact of September 11 suggests that Americans are still feeling intense emotions, often to the point of mental health difficulties,” said Margaret Heldring, PhD, psychologist and president of America’s HealthTogether, an organization driven by primary care clinicians and mental health professionals. “It’s too big a job for one doctor or nurse to take care of all their patients’ needs, yet they are called upon to do that. We want to help them know what to do when a grieving family or frightened child comes into their office or clinic.”

“This initiative aims to bridge a gap by integrating mental and physical health services,” Heldring said. “As we pass the anniversary of September 11 and the threat of homeland terrorism heightens, the ripple effects on the mental health of individuals, families, and communities will become increasingly widespread. The doctor’s office and the local health clinic are ideal places to catch and treat emotional distress before they spiral out of control.”

While directed at the particular circumstances of homeland terrorism, the initiative has broader public health implications for understanding mental health issues, reducing their stigma, and improving the quality of life of those who suffer from mental illness. “September 11 has forced mental health issues out of the closet,” Heldring said.

The groundbreaking initiative, “Mental Health and Primary Care in a Time of Terrorism,” will occur in three phases: 1) research into the experiences and needs of primary care providers dealing with mental health problems and emotional responses; 2) development and dissemination of education tools designed to help them; and 3) assessment of the effectiveness of these tools in light of new knowledge about the nature of mental health responses to terrorism and bioterrorism.

The initiative is a partnership among America’s HealthTogether and 17 of the nation’s leading mental health groups and primary health care organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, National Mental Health Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, National Association of County and City Health Officials, and American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine.

America’s HealthTogether, a bipartisan public policy educational group committed to coordinating solutions to the challenges of the current crisis in health care, is co-chaired by former U.S. Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Bradley (D-NJ) and former U.S. Senator David Durenberger (R-MN).

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based in Princeton, NJ, is the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. It concentrates its grant-making in four goal areas: to assure that all Americans have access to basic health care at reasonable cost; to improve care and support for people with chronic health conditions; to promote healthy communities and lifestyles; and to reduce the personal, social, and economic harm caused by substance abuse — tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs.