This fall a tragedy greatly impacted our community. The extent of the effects of this event will be long lasting and will forever change the lives of many in our community. Central Vermont has experienced other tragedies and disasters, including the loss of a young man this past summer, Tropical Storm Irene, and many other events that are part of our collective experience. These events leave real marks on many, and the recent loss of five Harwood high-school students in a senseless event will require a lengthy recovery. Yet, there are things that can be done to help those left in the wake of such events heal. There are also things we as individuals and as a community can proactively do to keep ourselves well when events like this occur. While no preparation can shield any of us from such great loss and the grief that accompanies it, we can learn more ways to build resilience and to manage the grief and loss from the trauma of such disaster.
After the October tragedy, WCMHS joined Harwood the next day to help the school’s Crisis Response Team begin to plan the supports that would be critical in the first days following the event. WCMHS staff worked with the school throughout the week to help manage student and staff responses. In collaboration with the Harwood administration and Crisis ResponseTeam, WCMHS took over long term planning and treatment oversight for the school. Margaret Joyal, the director of WCMHS Outpatient Services, became the coordinator with the intention of supporting the school and community over the next several months.
One of Margaret’s first steps was to offer Diffusing Groups for all staff at Harwood, as they had been doubly charged with managing student reactions and also processing their personal responses to the tragedy. These groups offered staff an opportunity to check in about how they were doing, what their thoughts and feelings were about the event and then addressing steps that could help with coping in the immediate and long term. These groups were productive, and the WCMHS team reconvened after the eight groups met to give feedback and report what staff had to say. Much of the feedback was as expected, with responses ranging from anger to numbness to a sense of confusion and fatigue. WCMHS staff normalized this during the groups, as these are typical responses to such a traumatic event. Encouraging staff to talk about their thoughts and feelings in relationship to the tragedy and the days following was a key first step. Then WCMHS staff offered reminders about the need for self-care to ensure the teachers took care of themselves so that they could continue to offer supports to others. During the debriefing that followed the groups, it was decided that another set of these groups would be offered within a month. WCMHS is now in the process of running grief and other support groups for the school, managing the needs for those who may need more than group supports, and coordinating various activities to help the school and community in their recovery.
Traumatic events, both man-made and natural, are realities in our world. Over time, mental health agencies and practitioners have been involved in research on the effects of such events on individuals, groups, communities and even larger populations. This research has yielded results that show a pattern to trauma responses and the corresponding treatments that are most useful. Initially, individuals need a sense of safety, calmness, connectedness, efficacy (or the sense that the individual can cope with the trauma), and finally, hope. After the initial response, which can last for days, weeks or even months, most people will have recovered to their baseline or typical state of functioning. However, others may need ongoing supports that require more long-term treatment options. In the interim, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Skills for Psychological Recovery is a useful tool for providers. This is a simplified set of steps that can be assessed and acted upon to help people reorient to their new reality. Assessing where an individual is, helping them problem solve, teaching coping skills to manage their reactions, promoting positive activities, strengthening healthy social interactions, and focusing on helpful thinking are steps that some can take to bolster their wellness.
Some of the initial responses that people may have that represent what is called an ‘acute stress reaction’ are physical signs such as headaches or increased stress; emotional reactions such as strong anger, depression, and even guilt; cognitive reactions like impaired concentration, obsessive thoughts; behavioral reactions like increased alcohol or substance use, hypervigilance, and periods of crying without clear explanation; and finally spiritual reactions like the increased use of prayer and ritual or even the rejection of one’s faith. All these reactions can be normalized within the context of a tragedy, and it is often helpful to those who are experiencing this to recognize that this is to be expected and will fade with time.
Here at Washington County Mental Health Services, we provide mental health supports to those affected by disasters of various kinds. In 2005 Washington County Mental Health Services and the other Designated Agencies established Behavioral Health Disaster Response Teams (BHDRT) to respond to the mental health needs of Vermonters in the aftermath of disasters. The BHDRT provides psychological support to residents of Washington County and, if needed, other areas of the state, after disasters of all types - natural or man-made, mass casualty events and critical incidents. The team primarily consists of, but is not limited to, agency employees who volunteer and complete sixteen hours of disaster response training. We provide services such as Psychological First Aid, Sudden Death Notification, Critical Incident Stress Management, Mental health assessment and referral, Suicide Post-vention for schools and businesses and the community at large. We have responded to Red Cross shelters, individual homes, disaster information centers, schools, as well as conducted community meetings and forums. Since the team was established, some of the events we have participated in include responses to Tropical Storm Irene, flash floods in Barre, Department of Children and Families Barre District Office post-vention, suicide post-vention at several schools, Barre District Health Office for pertussis vaccine distribution and community forums in Randolph and Montpelier. In addition we participated in disaster drills with Central Vermont Medical Center and the Vermont Department of Health/Emergency Management including Operation Vigilant Guard in June of this year.
WCMHS, Harwood and Northeast Family Institute (NFI) are involved in the ongoing process to help Harwood and its surrounding communities heal. Harwood has done an excellent job of hosting events, both immediately and ongoing that allow the community to come together, remember the students who were lost, and to strengthen the bonds of the community. This is an incredibly important component of helping people begin to move through this event. Now, as time moves forward, most people have resumed routines and will work integrating this incredibly difficult story into their lives. For others, more help may be needed, and WCMHS will continue to offer our support to this effort. WCMHS is committed and honored to offer support for mental health wellness and recovery in our larger community.
Written November 2016
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