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
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.