SwissAir's false victims

Sept. 12, 1998


The crash of Swissair Flight 111 this past week claimed the lives of all 229 passengers and crew. Clearly, this is a tragedy.

Among those who have travelled to the scene are the families of many of the victims. As these people face the reality of what has happened, the depth of their pain seems unfathomable. They deserve our compassion. People around the world are saddened by this event. Many feel helpless. People cry. Some feel intense anger in their sense of helplessness and injustice.

These are human reactions that I understand. But what puzzles me is all the talk about the emotional scars on Nova Scotians. Why are the colleagues of the crew, the fishermen, the divers and the soldiers searching the beaches being cast as victims when the real victims are the dead? Why are the residents of Peggy's Cove and of the other bays and beaches along the coast, where remnants of the jet and its passengers may wash ashore, being offered psychological help? Why is it predicted that one in five members of the military search-and-rescue team will be stress casualties? Why is there concern that children watching news reports about the tragedy may suffer?

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. So, an army of psychologists and debriefers invades the scene of the tragedy to dispense a service they call "critical incident stress counselling."

Now, talking things through, offering a shoulder to cry on, can help people feel better. But Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), as it is known in the business, goes beyond listening and comforting. It encourages people to look for stress within themselves. Its inventor, Jeffrey Mitchell, a firefighter turned psychologist, insists that, if done his way, CISM can ease the effects of traumatic events, accelerate recovery and prevent post-traumatic stress reactions.

Given these claims, it is no wonder that anyone and everyone who is even remotely connected to the tragedy -- the residents of Peggy's Cove, the searchers, the children and even the trauma counsellors, is being encouraged to accept the program. However, there is a growing concern that CISM may be useless, and even unsafe. When you look beyond the heartfelt testimonials and the anecdotes CISM proponents offer as proof of its value, you find a disturbing absence of supportive evidence. Recent studies even show that those who receive trauma counselling have a higher likelihood of getting worse. Rather than being preventative, these services may actually be doing harm.

In defence of trauma counselling, some argue that many people report that it makes them feel better. But timing might be the important factor here. CISM protocol demands getting to people as soon as possible after the traumatic event. This is when they are feeling their worst. If counsellors don't get in fast, people will naturally begin to feel better by drawing on their own resources, something that much of modern psychology prefers to ignore.

Nova Scotians have frequently demonstrated their resilience in the face of adversity. The crash of Swissair 111 is just the latest in a long history of tragedies at sea and in mines. A Maritimer with whom I spoke recounted finding the body of a friend's father washed up on shore and of helping to retrieve bodies from a collapsed mine. When asked if he needed help with these memories, he laughed. For him, as gruesome as they are, these experiences are part of the fabric of his life, a way of knowing that life is both valuable and fragile, full of sadness and joy.

If he and others can deal with tragedy so maturely, you have to wonder why professionals who are supposedly trained to handle such situations need their own psychologists. (In trauma lingo, they are the secondary victims who suffer from helping others.)

How incredibly narcissistic and self-absorbed we have become as a society when, in the midst of tragedy, people seek to draw attention to how victimized they are by having to confront something that upsets them.

They aren't real victims. They can go home to their families and kiss their children good-night. It might be upsetting to watch the suffering of others, but the suffering belongs to others, not to them. Trauma counselling, however, encourages people to dwell on their own comparatively trivial discomfort and robs the real victims of the respect due them.

Thousands of Nova Scotians have expressed their sympathy by offering food, billeting and even chauffeur service to victims' relatives. These are genuine acts of caring. The dubious services of the psychological intruders are not.

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,