A column of Dr. Dineen in

"Trauma counsellors do more harm than good"

Sept. 20, 2001


Something larger than either life or death has gripped North America. In the aftermath of last week's horror, we've witnessed the rising up of some of the most precious qualities of the human spirit: strength, courage, kindness, love and endurance.
It's been a long time since I've felt proud to be human, but that's what I'm feeling these days.
I'm responding not just to the heroic deeds of those whose names we've come to know; men like Fire Chief Peter Ganci, who died in the World Trade Center debris as he had lived —rescuing others; and Thomas Burnett who, along with other passengers on the hijacked United Flight 93, decided to do something fatal to avert a larger tragedy. I'm struck, also, by the heroic reactions of people like Burnett's widow Deena who, in her grief, could state: "I'm so proud of him and so grateful."
'I keep thinking of those farewell cell-phone calls and of the couple who, hand in hand, plummeted 70 floors to certain death.
For days, the dust-covered faces of rescuers have conveyed a brutal truth that makes it difficult not to choke up when listening to the people who wait in hope and fear for news of loved ones.
Right after the disaster, New Yorkers were forming queues outside hospitals to give blood. People wanted to help but now much of that donated blood sits unused, hospitals are quiet and doctors have nothing to do. It's body bags, not stretchers, that are moving.
Yet people continue to do what is humanly possible. And they pray, light candles, sing, cry and express a unity that President George W. Bush described at last Friday's service of remembrance as a "kinship of grief."
We have a sense of loss and a sense of community - a feeling that people actually care about each other. If we can hold on to this sense of humanity, we might actually be able to cope with a death toll that New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani warned early on would be "more than any of us can bear."
But arriving on the scene now is a threat to our strength. It's the trauma counsellors - those well-meaning people who babble on about something called critical incident stress. They've invaded New York and Washington. And they're popping up in every city and town across this continent, including Vancouver and Victoria.
What do these people do? First, they tell us what stress is and how it affects our emotions, thoughts and behaviours - as if we don't already know. Then, they tell us to take care of ourselves - to eat regularly, get enough sleep, avoid drinking too much, get a hobby or see a movie. And they warn us about possible psychological problems that might need to be treated. This is what they call critical incident stress management.
Some of this is what we used to call common sense. But, the rest is dangerous nonsense that only serves to draw us away from concern about others and into a lonely self-centredness.
Our society, for decades now, has been a dismal place where the unifying "we" has been replaced with a whining "me, me, me." For a brief time, we have risen above that state and shared a concern for the common good. Now, if we take seriously what these counsellors are telling us, I fear they'll drag us down into that sad, lonely place where wallowing in one's own trivial concerns justifies ignoring the needs of others.
I listened to a trauma counsellor recently talk about her own "survivor guilt," her own distress caused by wondering why she was still alive in Victoria when others were dead in New York. And I heard another describe how debilitated she was because of all the emotional weight she carried for all the people she knows are suffering. She called it "compassion fatigue."
This kind of self-preoccupation does no one any good.
With the tremendous human response we've witnessed so far, why would we allow the intrusion of these professionals who, at best, add nothing more to what we already are doing and, at worst, encourage us to put our mundane problems ahead of real suffering and anguish.
My heart goes out to the victims, their relatives and friends, and to the rescue workers who fill the body bags. But I recoil in disgust from the trauma counsellors.
We have a choice. We can ignore them and assert our humanity, or we can follow their lead into whining victimhood.

  by Dr. Tana Dineen, columnist

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist, The Vancouver Sun