|One of the peculiar features of public tragedy in Canada these
days, or so it strikes me, is the ubiquitous presence of "grief
counsellors." A bus crashes, a tornado hits, a student gets
murdered in school, and all of a sudden, along with the flashing
ambulances and police cars, comes this bevy of shrinks. They are
now a standard element in emergency response teams. Dial 911 from
the scene of a disaster, and dispatched in reply will be your paramedics,
your cops, your firemen --and your earnest, probing therapist offering
Who are these grief counsellors, I always wonder, and what makes
them think people who've just experienced trauma want to talk
to them? Why wouldn't they want to talk to their chums, or their
parents or siblings or teachers or colleagues?
Why, for that matter, would they want to talk at all, within
hours of the event? I am imagining the teenagers at Lester B.
Pearson High School in Calgary, whose fellow student, Samer Jaber,
died on Monday morning after being stabbed in the throat in the
hall. Reporters noted that the teens were hugging one another,
or waiting for their moms and dads to come and take them home.
Some kicked at garbage cans, others sat shakily on the floor.
These are all perfectly normal responses to upsetting news.
Yet grief counsellors were soon on the scene, apparently milling
around the schoolyard and at the mall across the street, scouting
for visibly upset kids, and asking if they wanted to talk about
it. Without presuming to know whether these enquiries were welcome
amongst the Calgary kids or not, I do wonder about the strangely
intrusive nature of this practice. Something awful happened. It
isn't really a question of talking about it to trained psychotherapists,
it's a question of letting it rip through you. Maybe you want
to talk about it in a couple of weeks, or a couple of months,
or only ever talk about it to your friends, or write about it
in your diary. In other words, these kids are barely even finished
experiencing the event before being asked to reflect upon their
According to Tana Dineen, a psychologist in Victoria, the theory
behind on-site grief counselling, or "critical incident stress
management," as it is officially called, is that people need
to be treated quickly in order to "accelerate recovery and
prevent post-traumatic stress reactions." But there is scant
evidence to support this idea. In fact, Dineen charges, what evidence
exists actually suggests that these intrusions make people feel
worse by encouraging them to dwell on their "inner stresses."
Dineen, the author of Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology
Industry is Doing to People, wrote an adamant opinion piece in
the Ottawa Citizen in the wake of the SwissAir crash at Peggy's
Cove about counsellors roving that landscape in search of traumatized
witnesses. "It seems that we have been persuaded that those
who witness a tragedy, no matter how indirectly, are themselves
victims, because they might be upset by what they saw or felt.
And because they were upset, they need professional counselling
to recover from the 'trauma' of feeling upset," she wrote.
Wheels within wheels, going round and round. "If counsellors
don't get in fast," Dineen sarcastically continued, "people
will naturally begin to feel better by drawing on their own resources,
something that much of modern psychology prefers to ignore."
Last week, Dineen's rather scathing opinion was seconded by an
internationally known psychiatrist from Kings College, London.
At a conference in Aukland, New Zealand, Dr. Simon Wessely called
for an end to grief counselling, which he denounced as ineffective
and even voyeuristic, tossing counsellors with otherwise-humdrum
lives into the same dreaded category as ambulance chasers and
"We are living in a culture of therapy," he said. "I
would like to see some common sense. It's all about not
making a drama out of what is already a drama."
Wessely, who is known for his contrarian opinions, said if victims
or witnesses wanted to talk, "you should talk, if possible,
to someone you know already: who is in your group."
An interesting example of the clash between the intimate group
and the professional intimate took place last year in Quebec,
in the village of Saint-Bernard, where a bus plunged off the road,
killing 43 senior citizens. According to reports, the parish priest,
known to all in his small community, found himself fending off
the influx of grief counsellors, denouncing them -- and the lawyers,
and the insurance people -- as "vultures."
Well-intentioned vultures, surely? But the priest was defending
his own, long-established counselling role. What he was saying,
in effect, is that it takes a village --not a profession -- to
help us heal our wounds.