Swissair took toll on locals, study says
By John Gillis
A "code of silence" among the stoic villagers and a lack of co-ordination among helping professionals have hurt the physical and mental health of people in communities like Peggys Cove and Blandford in the aftermath of the Swissair plane crash, researchers say.
At Dalhousie University on Thursday, a multidisciplinary team presented the findings of a 4 1/2-year study of the impact of the crash and the subsequent recovery operation on local volunteers and communities.
Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the waters off Peggys Cove five years ago next Tuesday, killing all 229 people aboard.
Intensive recovery efforts went on for four or five months and were not finished for over a year.
The researchers handed out questionnaires and interviewed 13 people involved in recovery and support. They also looked at physician billing information in the area before and after the crash.
They found that the sight of human remains, the drawn-out recovery process, the "occupation" of quiet villages by rescuers and the media, and the regular reminders of the plane crash left 46 per cent of the volunteers, and 71 per cent of those exposed to human remains, with likely reactions of post-traumatic stress.
People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder may be troubled by nightmares and flashbacks, be easily startled, avoid things that remind them of the event and become emotionally detached.
Compared to similar coastal communities with less exposure to the effects of the crash, rates of respiratory illness shot up in the immediate area in the three years after the crash.
The incidence of neurological illness increased by 44 per cent, heart disease by 58 per cent and mental health problems by 51 per cent.
Interviews and sales figures from the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. showed many volunteers and community members turned to alcohol to deal with stress after the recovery wound down and around anniversaries of the crash.
Immediately after the crash, some villagers set off in their boats to pull people out of the water and were confronted with only human remains and the grim reality that no one had survived, said psychologist Terry Mitchell, who helped direct the study.
Some of the people interviewed helped with the operation for as long as 73 days after the crash.
But even those who weren't directly involved in the operation couldn't avoid seeing body parts wash up in front of their homes.
Recovery workers took over buildings, restricted access to parts of the community and closed waterways, disrupting every part of life in the fishing villages.
"The communities' status quo, how they met, how they would normally deal with community events or stress or problems were circumvented because they were no longer able to gather in the way that they normally gathered," Ms. Mitchell said. "They weren't able to meet where they normally met."
Those exposed to human remains were more likely to turn to alcohol to cope with their feelings.
Researcher Sherry Stewart said that created a vicious cycle, preventing people from dealing with their feelings and prolonging their post-traumatic stress.
While the organizations involved in the recovery had their own counsellors, locals tended not to seek help.
"The stoicism of the people . . . perhaps led to these people not seeking help," said Rev. Randy Townsend, rector of the Blandford parish since 2000.
He was part of a community panel guiding the researchers.
Mr. Townsend said the crash came in the midst of an already troubled time in the area.
A high turnover of "trusted professionals" - school principals, doctors, clergy, etc. - in the years after the disaster left those who might have sought help feeling they had no one to turn to.
And family doctors, teachers and others weren't sharing information that might have pointed to people's serious trauma.
Mr. Townsend said the results of the study have raised awareness of the need for those professionals to work together more closely, but it's not happening yet.
While many people still wish they could simply forget the crash, and tensions rise noticeably on each anniversary, he said there is a sense that people are beginning to accept Swissair as a part of their lives and part of the story of their communities.
"In a lot of cases, it did strengthen people in the knowledge of who they are and in what they believe," Mr. Townsend said after the news conference. "But it only came after being shook.
"It's like if someone pulls the carpet out from underneath you and you finally realize what's underneath it."
Barry Manual, Halifax Regional Municipality's emergency measures co-ordinator, said the report will help rescuers plan for the future.
"I'm not so naive to think that it won't happen again in Canada, that it won't happen in Nova Scotia," he said.
HOW TO RESPOND
Network doctors, teachers, clergy and other helping professionals at a local level, by regulation if necessary.
Ensure community events and programs continue as usual during a disaster.
Avoid changing community leaders and trusted professionals soon after disasters.
Limit the time volunteers spend helping with rescue and recovery and avoid exposing them to human remains.
Ensure support is available for the people trying to support others.
Make aid available after rescue and recovery has ended and around anniversaries.
Here is a different view from an Ottawa columnist written shortly after the crash:
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,
The Ottawa Citizen
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