Friday, August 10, 2007
New group's mission is to help community heal
Mental health interventions are needed now, according to professionals.
Amy Forsyth-Stephens (from left), Kymn Davidson–Hamley and Dorinda Miller are part of a new group aimed at community healing after the Virginia Tech shootings. The group is called the Center for Community Healing After Tragedy, or CHAT.
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BLACKSBURG -- In the aftermath of the April 16 tragedy at Virginia Tech, a new group has formed in the New River Valley to address mental health needs.
The Center for Community Healing After Tragedy met in June to begin planning interventions to help groups affected by trauma. Amy Forsyth-Stephens of the Mental Health Association of the New River Valley, Harvey Barker of New River Valley Community Services and Dorinda Miller of the Community Disaster Response Coalition put together a summary of needs.
In addition to the Tech students, families and staff members directly affected, CHAT identified eight community groups considered to be at risk for post-traumatic stress and other disorders associated with trauma.
"I think people need to understand how trauma impacts," said Forsyth-Stephens. "It's not all treatable with a Band-Aid. Trauma's different."
For the eight groups identified -- caregivers, clergy, health care providers, law enforcement, older adults, schools, people with mental illness and their families and the international community -- CHAT representatives began formulating ways to facilitate healing.
People don't realize how deeply people in these groups have been affected, the mental health professionals said.
Members of the clergy, for instance, faced intense demands as a result of the tragedy.
Senior citizens who watched continuous TV news coverage of the event also experienced negative effects.
Older veterans have faced the return of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Barker, who directs emergency and adult clinical services at his agency, said calls to its ACCESS emergency hotline have increased dramatically since April 16.
"Individuals in our community are not necessarily calling in saying they are in crisis due to April 16," he said, "but it seems that April 16 may have triggered an increase in symptoms. It may come out in increased drinking or drug use, marital problems, exacerbation of psychiatric symptoms, sleep disturbance and problems with family or children."
The mental health professionals will focus on three methods of offering help: outreach, education and clinical services.
Outreach efforts may target the community at large through events such as festivals or concerts or target specific groups at such places as nursing homes or school cafeterias. Taking police officers out to a ball game or providing a day of peer support for pastors could go a long way toward healing, the professionals say.
Educational efforts would include lectures, seminars, workshops, retreats, training and written materials. For instance, anti-bullying programs and seminars about mental illness are among the ideas for reaching schoolchildren.
Clinical services, particularly individual and group counseling, are needed for people requiring treatment by licensed professionals. Members of CHAT hope to offer regular visits to the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department, the Blacksburg Police Department and the Virginia Tech Police Department. People with pre-existing mental illnesses will need additional support as well.
Of course, the first step in providing help is securing dollars for it.
"There are a lot of needs out there," Barker said. "There is minimal to no new funding to help with this. Everybody thinks $7 million has come into the community. It hasn't. It has come into the campus."
While the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund has generated $7.1 million in donations, that money will support the families of the 32 victims, as well as university personnel involved in the tragedy.
United Way's Kymn Davidson-Hamley said the United in Caring Fund is the only source of support for community recovery efforts now.
Launched the day after the tragedy, the fund has generated $322,000 in donations and commitments to date. Of that amount, $49,567 has been paid to primary victims and their families for initial emergency needs.
Davidson-Hamley said no administrative fees are taken from the fund. She and her staff are working to offer grants for community healing.
"We're going to move ahead," she said. "We can't just sit and do nothing. We've got to do with what we have."