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Putting Trauma Treatment Theory Into Practice

The incident last fall that took the lives of five Harwood students deeply impacted the family of each student. This incident also had a real impact on Harwood’s students, staff, and surrounding community.  Washington County Mental Health offered an immediate response and was in the school by the following Monday to begin the process of recovery that would unfold over the rest of the school year.  Margaret Joyal, the Director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CCPS), and Karen Kurrle, the Director of Intensive Care Services (ICS), took on a leadership role at the school to help manage and coordinate the various services that were initially offered to help all involved with the process of stabilization.  Margaret continued to assist the school with referrals for ongoing or more intensive supports if an individual required this level of support and also to develop recovery programing.  By the end of the school year, there was again some sense of routine and normalcy within the school and the community, and the lessons learned through the lived experience of this year were transformative for many involved, including Margaret.

Harwood LogoWhen Margaret first began her work at the school, she consulted with many of her colleagues across the state who were involved with the Child/Family Trauma Workgroup.  Margaret also collaborated with peers from Northeast Family Institute (NFI) and the Department of Mental Health (DMH) to best implement the knowledge and best practices regarding trauma-informed, organizational supports.  Given the impact of the event, a longer term approach was adopted in order to re-build stability in the school community.  This support network made translating much of the theoretical information associated with developing a trauma informed response more feasible, which was key to making this an effective support system to help people reorient themselves into life after this tragedy. 

Margaret found early on that one of the unique factors at play in Harwood community’s response was the community’s cohesion and connection to each other.   The school and community’s ability to come together in support of one another so quickly after the event and to immediately reach out for additional supports indicated that they had the capacity to engage in the early work that could begin the recovery process.  This was an ‘aha’ experience for Margaret in many ways, as she had the opportunity to witness the power of community resilience.

Margaret made a determination early in her work with the school that she would keep her focus on helping both staff and students ‘re-build the floor’, meaning the work would not focus on processing the trauma but rather on promoting wellness and stabilization.  For staff, Margaret arranged a variety of offerings including acupuncture, neurofeedback, and a wellness self-care group conducted by Ellia Cohen, Wellness Collaborative coordinator at WCMHS.  Diffusing groups provided a more immediate way for teachers to talk with each other soon after the event, express the various emotions that they were experiencing, and begin to reorient their lives after this devastating event.  Consultation was given to staff regarding classroom processes, to ensure that they were trauma sensitive.  Consultation was also offered as support to staff and as a method of assessing need and offering referrals when needed. A day long resiliency building training was offered for staff and staffed by WCMHS.  Several community forums were held to address parental needs as they arose.  Margaret again focused on the practical, with information sharing about treatment options, how to best monitor for ‘red flags’ in student’s behaviors, and how to manage their children’s needs ranging from school holidays to the possibility of increased substance use.  Students were offered yoga and drumming groups, and therapy dogs.  Therapy dogs played an essential role in the recovery process. They were brought into the common areas and many classrooms. Planned classroom activities to provide education to students and to build resiliency were provided as well.

In January, a full time social worker was assigned to Harwood for the remainder of the year, based on recommendations from Margaret and other consultants to the school.  The social worker, Melissa Marcellino, focused on both coordination and direct service for students at the school.  By the end of the school year, several students still showed a clear trauma response to the event and struggled to be available for education.  Some of these students were directly linked to the five students who were lost as friends or family members, and for others, the event ‘triggered’ their own trauma response based on personal life experiences.

Over the course of her time at Harwood, Margaret felt deeply with this community and was impacted in a way that only something of this nature can engender.  She recognized that it was crucial to honor the tragedy and the scope of the loss AND to also focus on wellness and meaning making for others.  The commonality that this experience created for all involved led to Margaret’s understanding of the importance of helping people ‘move’ through a tragedy, not around, but through.  She also recognized how important it was for individuals to avoid becoming stuck in the very difficult emotional and mental experiences that people experience after such a traumatic event.   Margaret’s years of work at CCPS and level of expertise in trauma was grounded and expanded by this very real experience, and all the theoretical components became embedded in helping people find meaning after the event, integrate into their new normal, and to reconnect with each other.  Margaret said if there is a take away, it is that we must have hope to recover, and this is something that we all can bring to our daily lives and work.


Submitted August 2017

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