Are there rules for who can grieve and who can’t?

Needing help is not a crime

The psychology and sociology surrounding toxic (life-threatening) events crossed my mind while listening to community leaders in Gillam, Manitoba, speak of their reaction to the recent nationwide manhunt for two murder suspects.

With the discovery of the suspects’ bodies and the case resolved, save a motive, one supposition might be that the world of the Gillam region would pretty much return to normal in a couple of days. Yeah, there’d be a little bit of coffee shop discussion, but that would be it.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case, and Gillam’s mayor opined on CBC’s, The Current that the area communities would have to heal together.

Seemingly in rebuttal, a woman asked on The Current’s website: “Why does Gillam need to heal together? Because suspected murderers traversed their [province’s] wilderness? I really don’t get that. It’s likely hundreds of criminals traverse your province every day. Probably a few murderers each month too [whose] crimes were never detected. Save the healing for the families of this terrible tragedy.”

Well, indeed there is a very good reason for what is happening in the Gillam region and why they feel they need to heal together. The obvious reason relates to our basic survival instincts.

Think of a school of fish, you know the ones that have thousands of fish that all turn at the same time in an amazing, fishy ballet. Pretty, but fish school for defense, not beauty and grace. Stick a barracuda into the area and it may attack the school and eat a few fish, but the likelihood of any one fish getting eaten is proportional to the number of fish in the school.

Put one little, lone fish out with the barracuda and it’s pretty much game over.

If we extend this analogy to the effect of a threat on a small community as compared to a large one we see that threat is significantly greater to any one individual in the small community – ergo we reasonably might expect individual stress levels to be higher as well.

In short, the psychological impact of what at least at some level was perceived by many in Gillam as a life threatening event really is much larger than it might be in Winnipeg, Vancouver or Toronto. Each resident in Gillam is more like the solitary fish faced with a barracuda in the neighbourhood.

So, if we think of the school of fish analogy, there may be considerable need for the people of the Gillam region to heal together. The very possibility of being under threat from suspects who may have murdered for no reason, a threat given verisimilitude by an army of heavily armed law enforcement personnel, is toxic (life threatening) for many – but not all. Some will most certainly suffer more than others. It is why some soldiers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and others do not.

The bible for clinical psychologists is a tome called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). It is currently on its fifth incarnation (DSM-V), but the fourth version with which I am most familiar placed a heavy emphasis on the nature of an event as a cause of PTSD.

Indeed, some professionals believed that a traumatic event of significant magnitude would absolutely cause PTSD and any patient experiencing such an event and not reporting the symptoms of PTSD was in denial.

However, psychologists such as Dr. Marilyn Laura Bowman, Professor Emeritus of Simon Fraser University, who I discovered when researching my own thesis, began to question the logic in the DSM-IV classification in the late 1990’s.

Bowman’s research demonstrated that there was no universal response to a particular toxic event, regardless of its magnitude. Neither is there a best way to cope with the outcome of such an event.

Our personal backgrounds, cultural imperatives, religious beliefs, rituals and learning all affect how we respond to toxic events if and when they occur in our lives. Bowman notes that the varied reactions are all authentic (real) and natural.

Some people are more ‘emotional’ than others, while some are better able to regulate their emotions. Genetics and life experiences intrude on our propensity to suffer from anxiety and depression or not.

So, indeed, in a small community like Gillam (population 1,265 and dropping), a community where everyone knows everyone else, there will be a strong and empathetic response to those who feel the negative impacts of what was a toxic event.

Gillam mayor Dwayne Forman evoked a very rational response when he said: “It’s impossible for us to know every single individual’s process right now … so I want them to know that as a community we have to come together, heal together.”

For most people this will work very well – most people do not need counseling or therapy.

They have tried and trusted strategies for coping with life’s turmoils and generally do very well, thank you very much.

The supports that work for most people might include a good friend to talk with, an empathetic member of the clergy, family members, hard work, exercise, music, travel, hobbies, a pet, hiking or walking, or a host of other activities that promote a positive view of the world.

Wending one’s way through the vicissitudes of life can be challenging, but for most of the people in the world, it is what they do.

However, for a minority (Bowman suggests about 15 per cent) of people experiencing a toxic event, the immediate outcome may be very different. They will suffer to the point that their lives are seriously impaired.

When this happens it is important that someone notices and reaches out to help the person receive professional assistance.

In this case, Mayor Forman’s approach is equally valid. Being sensitive to – and aware of – individuals in the community is an important tool in helping those who may be suffering from what indeed may be a life changing experience.

So, all I have to say to the good people of Gillam and region is: “Hang in there kids, ignore the nay-sayers, look after each other and always ask for help when you need it.

“Needing help is not a crime.”

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