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Big Dig state of mind

Local psychiatrists put Boston on the couch

The traffic at Leverett Circle on Storrow Drive eastbound a week after the I-90 connector ceiling collapse. Mental health experts say the Big Dig's failures may cause more than traffic headaches.
The traffic at Leverett Circle on Storrow Drive eastbound a week after the I-90 connector ceiling collapse. Mental health experts say the Big Dig's failures may cause more than traffic headaches. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

LAST WEEKEND, David Luberoff, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, attended a party in Philadelphia. Relatives from New Hampshire, New Jersey, and North Carolina had gathered to celebrate a cousin's 95th birthday. But all anyone at Luberoff's table wanted to talk about was the Big Dig.

``I felt like I was at a press conference for 45 minutes," he said. ``Some questions were technical, some were managerial." One cousin wanted to know whether Boston would have been better off without the project at all. While he formulated an answer, the festivities began. ``I got saved by the bell," he said.

Boston drivers are used to hearing people carp about the highway project that has snarled traffic for over a decade-and they aren't hesitant to complain themselves, though often with a touch of pride at having mastered its twists and turns. But making sense of the Big Dig now, as investigators continue to unravel the cause of the ceiling collapse that killed 38-year-old Milena Del Valle, is a taller order-one experts say may carry a psychological burden.

In the short term, mental health experts say, tempers may flare as the public deals with the logistical inconvenience of detours, lingering uncertainty about the safety of the tunnels, and mounting cynicism about the project. ``The general sense is that people do feel very angry and frightened at the same time," said Dr. James Recht, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

And there may be long-term effects as well-ones that could subtly reshape the city's identity. ``I really think that apart from disappointment, anger, and frustration, there's the humiliation," said Dr. Gene Beresin, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. ``Boston is kind of a national capital of intellectual prowess. Here we are the best brains in the world, and we can't even build an engineering project that works."

Mental health experts were quick to point out that the ceiling collapse is not analogous to the kind of crisis that could leave a psychological scar on an entire region: The Big Dig accident is not tantamount to the widespread destruction and death that can be brought on by war or a natural disaster. What's more, MGH'S Beresin said, Boston-area residents have put up with the project for so long that they are almost uniquely steeled for something like this.

But as the safety of the tunnels remains uncertain, the situation is a kind of crisis.

``The similarities to an attack are in people's experience of this. It feels like this kind of danger being imposed on us," Recht said. ``People aren't used to reacting to that, and they don't really have a good emotional or psychological vocabulary for it."

Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Boston College, said that right now, what people are dealing with is anger and stress caused by things beyond their control. Such emotions can become self-perpetuating and even begin to change a person's perspective. A study she is working on seems to suggest that angry people not only interpret reality differently, they may notice more negative things-the world begins to seem filled with obstacles and offenses. She predicted that Boston-area residents would be more likely to take offense at small things and have more arguments at work and at home, as the detours and uncertainty persist.

One possible antidote to the negativity, however, could be the responses of leaders and authorities. In times of stress, Recht said, people revert to more primitive ways of coping. The most extreme example is the ``fight or flight" response that takes over when people feel physically threatened, but in less stressful situations, they may simply depend more on civic leaders. The better a crisis is managed, the healthier the general response of the public. The more that a tragic incident is seen as a forum for political jockeying, on the other hand, the weaker the sense of social trust and responsibility.

``The public's reaction is very dependent on the behavior of leaders, especially in manmade disasters," Recht said, citing Rudolph Giuliani's response to 9/11 as a model for the kind of civic-minded behavior from which the public takes its cues. ``People tend to feel more frustrated and more depressed and more hopeless when leaders behave in ways perceived as politically motivated."

Even the most measured response by city and state leaders, however, may not help Boston-area residents when they travel to other parts of the country.

``It's a mockery, and it's humiliating, it's shameful. How will people deal with that shame?" Beresin asked. ``People travel around and have relatives out of town, and it's like, `Hey, what the heck is going on in Boston?"'

Carolyn Y. Johnson is a Globe reporter. E-mail cjohnson@globe.com.

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