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Gist was a junior administrator at a mental-health center in Independence and a doctoral student in community psychology. He had a grant from the National Science Foundation to study treatment philosophies and advocacy.
"I was looking at what we now think of as behavioral health issues, and I'd encountered some things about community reactions as part of that. So I just happened to have some background when the Hyatt happened."
Even then, Gist was not the type of psychologist to be enamored with the then-popular self-esteem movement or the idea that therapy necessitated the unfiltered disgorge of one's inner thoughts. "Lots of people think if you're a doctor in psychology, you're Dr. Phil," he says. "I don't do huggy-buddy, touchy-feely, kissy face. And if you hug me, I'll probably hit you."
In the months after the Hyatt collapse, local media outlets went out of their way to inform victims of how they could get help.
All of that attention slowly dissipated. But Gist and his fellow UMKC researchers kept following the psychological recovery of those affected. It was an unusual event to study, in that a large, traceable mass of the community had the same precursor for the trauma occurring at the same time. Often, people who are considered trauma victims are those with personal tragedies that isolate them in some way. A rape victim, for instance, embodies the scene of the crime. A combat veteran faces prolonged and constant threats, with a heightened sense of danger that's difficult to shake even when one is clearly safe. In the case of the Hyatt, however, people could distance themselves physically from the event; at the same time, almost all of the victims lived in the area, and it was rare to find a metro resident who didn't know a victim personally or know someone who did.
"That was seminal work in many ways," says Krys Kaniasty, a professor of psychology at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who researches community responses to disasters and has collaborated with Gist on books. "Before 9/11, there was little interest in community trauma. The field existed, but it wasn't a major interest," he says.
Gist wasn't alone in his research. Studies involving English and Israeli soldiers would come to many of the same conclusions about the way people process traumatic events. In Australia, work had been done with people who suffered through brush fires.
But because events like the Hyatt had almost never been studied, no one knew exactly what a normal psychological response really was. Gist found that all of the standard symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — shock and disbelief, exhaustion and a long period of assessment and integration, during which the person who experienced the event finally feels its full weight — were all normal reactions to the most abnormal situations imaginable.
"People deal with things in different ways. Maybe you ruminate on something, maybe you feel depressed, but does that make you sick? Does it mean you've been injured or just that life is full of stuff you have to grow from? What we found was that people who dealt with trauma by not dealing with it, by compartmentalizing it and distancing themselves from it until they could handle it in their own way — those people actually recovered just as well as anyone else. But others who were told that they had to go through some kind of counseling or who were forced to go through debriefing had their natural processes interrupted, and it actually hurt them."