Who are these grief counsellors?
National Post, Nov. 22, 2000. A18

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 to chat.

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 reaction.

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 journalists.

"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.