Category: Grief

feature-470x260-6f0917207c860c121e20580c44412ffc2a08e57a

When a Sibling Dies by Suicide

00Depression, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Grief, Health, Suicide October, 17

Source: Clair Graubner and Clair Graubner at flicker, Creative Commons

“As far back as I can remember, Michael was always good at being silly. He could make me laugh harder than anyone. He was very creative, and always had a good ear for music.”

In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Samantha (names changed for anonymity) shared her experiences living through the suicide of her older brother, Michael, when she was sixteen years old.

Michael’s battle with mental illness began as a teen. He struggled with low self-esteem and clinical depression, and consequently self-medicated.

“After my parentsdivorce, his mental health took a turn for the worse. He was always getting stoned and was generally depressed… After he took LSD with his friend, he was never the same. He was in a psychotic, suicidal state from the drug, so my parents took him to a mental hospital one night… He stayed in the hospital for a week, and was moved to a rehab facility to learn coping skills to become less dependent on marijuana. He was in an extremely dark place during his stay there, and came home in September to start school. He committed suicide on October 15, 2007.”

Samantha’s experience is not uncommon. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 34. And according to a report published by the National Institute of Mental Health, depression and substance abuse (often in combination with other mental disorders) are common risk factors for suicide.

“Words could never express how I felt when I found out. I fell to the ground in absolute hysterics. It’s such an out-of-body memory for me… to go from having an older brother and having visions of our future together, to then in a second having all of that taken away from you.”

Samantha also experienced dissociative thoughts after her brother’s suicide.

“I remember thinking that maybe we were being ‘punk’d’, and that this was all part of a twisted social experiment to show the devastating effects suicide has on a family. That probably lasted a year or so in order to protect my brain from feeling too deeply and to help me focus on other things, like getting into college.”

Samantha began using marijuana and alcohol regularly to numb feelings of anger and loss. Her transition to college was challenging—she had difficulty balancing school work with partying, and often felt isolated.

“I felt like I couldn’t relate to most of my peers, and was extremely lonely. I was always getting high by myself, and reflecting on the past. While all of this was going on, my dad got remarried and had a baby during my freshman year of college. It was really hard for me to watch him start a new family while I was still grieving the loss of our old family.”

Samantha’s decision to self-medicate to deal with her unresolved grief is common among adolescents who lack strong social support.

“I think about Michael every day… but finally I have the relationships and living environment to really dig deep and process what I’ve been through. Yoga and meditation have also played a huge part in my healing process, as well as hula hoop dancing.”

In fact, yoga and meditation can help the healing process. Research by psychology professor Stefan Hofmann and colleagues at Boston University describes the benefits of mindfulness meditation for anxiety and mood symptoms. In their meta-analysis of 39 research studies, individuals who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced reduced anxiety, grief, and depressive symptoms.

Everyone grieves in their own way, and moving on doesn’t have to mean leaving the loved one’s memory behind. As for Samantha: “Michael continues to live on with all of those who knew him.”

–Lauren Goldberg, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report.

Copyright Robert T. Muller.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

ea3-_-feature-1-_-1000-470x260-88002b5afbd586e8181231fa3a7fa74b1a889a95

Wearing Cancer Survival Like a Badge of Honor

00Featured news, Grief, Health, Positive Psychology, Relationships, Resilience October, 17

Source: eKBS at DeviantArt, Creative Commons

“I have stage 3 cancer; my friend has stage 1—which is like a pimple.”

On her personal blog, Debbie Woodbury, a woman diagnosed with Stage 0 cancer, references this comment by a fellow cancer patient. While she considers the comment hurtful, she is not particularly surprised.

Cancer prognoses vary, and there is large variation in survival between types and degrees of illness. Some are fortunate to survive without the sickening effects of chemotherapy, the fear of losing hair, or surgeries that leave patients bedridden for weeks. But people may also minimize their cancer journey, or be made to view their experiences as ‘lesser’.

Woodbury explains:

“Without a tumor and with a Stage 0 cancer diagnosis, I started this journey not even sure I was qualified to call myself a cancer patient.”

Similarly, Lesley Miller writes of her husband:

“I bought him a bold yellow shirt that said ‘survivor’ across the front. ‘Survivor,’ in his mind, is nothing to tell the world about. He didn’t do anything to claim survivor status; his body just had a treatable cancer that happened to respond to drugs.”

Just like that, degrees of illness become a competition, belittle personal struggles, and create segregation among patients and those in remission.

In January 2015, cancer survivor Cindy Finch posted an article in the Huffington Post entitled “The 6 Injustices of Cancer.” The article received a great deal of backlash for suggesting that certain cancer patients “get off really easy”. She claimed:

“I’ve heard it a hundred times, ‘I’m a cancer survivor, too.’ ‘Oh, really? What type of cancer did you have and what was your treatment?’ ‘Oh, I had thyroid cancer and had to take a radioactive pill for 30 days. Then I was all better.’”

Finch talks about individuals with ‘worse’ diagnoses:

“These folks represent the worst among us. If you’re not one of these folks, perhaps you should be quiet and sit down, and let someone else tell their war story.”

As if some cancer patients just aren’t macho enough. Attitudes like these have negative consequences on patient mental health.

Cancer patients often report feelings of guilt for surviving the illness. Survivor guilt is common among people who have gone through traumatic experiences, such as war, accidents, natural disasters, and interpersonal abuse. For Woodbury, not suffering enough throughout her cancer experience elicited guilt feelings.

Some individuals also consider themselves less deserving. Ann Silberman, a breast cancer survivor, writes in her personal blog:

“It was my belief that others deserved to live more than I did. Better people than me are now gone; people who were funnier, who were kinder, who had more to give.”

And then, of course, there are expectations people have of cancer patients: The image of the strong, inspirational individual, filled with gratitude for a second chance at life.

Silberman continues:

“I am still trudging along, bitching about how cold I am and slamming pain meds for my aches and pains.”

According to Crystal Park and colleagues at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, living through cancer results in the development of new identities that can define people for the rest of their lives. For those still in active treatment, the identity of patient or victim can develop, carrying the connotation of severe suffering inflicted on them. But for those who have survived such adversity, the most common identity was survivor, which carries the connotation of cure.

As cancer becomes an engrained aspect of an individual’s identity, it may be natural for those who suffered greatly to take pride in how much they overcame, indeed to try to silence others who have not experienced the same level of adversity.

But Woodbury takes umbrage at this view, noting:

“The truth is that cancer is not a competition and, just as I am enough, so is my cancer. I certainly did go through less than someone else might have gone through. Thank God for that. For that I should be grateful, not made to feel, by myself or anyone else, that I am guilty of not suffering enough to qualify in the cancer games.”

– Eleenor Abraham, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

Copyright Robert T. Muller.
 

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

feature-470x260-43a74536f236a495ef7d7c28fca8bc2e9e661e81

Losing a Pregnancy Only to Lose One Again

00Fear, Featured news, Grief, Pregnancy, Resilience, Therapy, Trauma July, 17

Source: margimadness, Deviant Art

Anna R. was having an ultrasound, prepared to see her baby for the first time. When she asked the technician what the sex of the baby was, the tech quickly left the room. The physician then entered to tell Anna there was no heartbeat. This became the first of seven pregnancy losses that she would endure.

Recurrent pregnancy loss (RPL) is typically defined as three consecutive losses prior to 20 weeks from the last menstrual period.

Affecting 1-2% of women, the causes of RPL differ. Advancing maternal age is associated with elevated risks of miscarriages, particularly in women 45 or older. Paternal age can also be a variable, with environmental and genetic factors playing a role as well. The risk of miscarriages further increases with the number of previous miscarriages, reaching approximately 40% after three consecutive losses.

While these causes have been established within the medical community, doctors still struggle to predict what ultimately leads to a couple’s pregnancy loss. Even after numerous tests, Anna’s physicians never found anything wrong, making the loss that much harder to cope with.

After her eighth miscarriage, Tracey Beadle of County Durham, UK told The Northern Echo:

“I think I wanted for them to find something wrong, because that would mean something could either be fixed or give us a reason to stop trying for a baby. We did not know when to stop.”

Janet Jaffe, a clinical psychologist and co-author of the book “Reproductive Trauma: Psychotherapy with Infertility and Pregnancy Loss Clients”, told the American Psychological Association:

“A miscarriage is a traumatic loss, not only of the pregnancy, but of a woman’s sense of self and her hopes and dreams of the future. She has lost her ‘reproductive story’, and it needs to be grieved.”

This grief is unique, in that expectant mothers and fathers mourn a child that never came to be. As Kate Evans, a woman who had six miscarriages said in an article in the Independent:

“If there’s no body, how can I grieve? I feel as though I must be kidding myself, wallowing in a morass of grief over a person who never even lived. Every time my mind trips back to this death, this loss, it strikes on empty, because there’s nothing there to miss.”

While there is no physical body to grieve, the hopes and dreams for a future with the child are ultimately the elements missed the most.

This grief is further complicated by feelings of isolation. When a loved one dies, there is often comfort in collective mourning with other grief-stricken individuals. But grieving the loss of a pregnancy can be an isolating experience for parents, as others haven’t formed the same connection with the unborn child and may struggle to understand why the experience is so painful.

Outsiders may also lack empathy for the mother’s experiences and fault her for the outcome of the pregnancy. Anna explained that people unintentionally implied that she was to blame for her miscarriage through comments like, “Do the doctors know what’s wrong with you?” or “Maybe you weren’t taking good care of yourself.”

RPL has been shown to severely disrupt the parents’ mental health. According to astudy by psychiatrist Michael Craig and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, of 81 women with recurrent miscarriages, 33% were classified as depressed, with 7.4% suffering from severe depression. And 21% of the women also had clinically significant anxiety, while some experienced heightened anger and guilt.

Research documenting fathers’ grieving processes showed that, unlike women, many men do not react with increased depressive symptoms, crying, or feeling the need to talk. But similar to women, a major source of grieving arises from relinquishing their hopes and expectations for their unborn child.

While physical treatments for RPL include surgeries, medications, genetic screening, and lifestyle changes, the emotional and psychological toll must also be addressed.

A report by the Practice Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine indicates that psychological support in early pregnancy results in significant improvement of pregnancy outcomes. Psychotherapy can also help work out anxieties and fears from previous miscarriages.

According to Anna, therapy was what helped her through seven painful miscarriages:

“My therapist became my saving grace. I could comfortably tell her anything and everything—especially things I didn’t want to discuss with my husband, like thoughts of suicide. She was the voice of reason in my confused and isolated world.”

Individuals can find additional help through in-person support groups at local organizations, or through online sites, such as the Baby Center, which offer web-based clubs and blogs. Connecting with these groups allows individuals to interact with others experiencing the same grief, which may reduce feelings of isolation.

In the midst of hopelessness, people may feel safer bracing themselves for more heartache. But it is important to remember that, even after four consecutive losses, a patient has a greater than 60% to 65% chance of carrying the next pregnancy to term. In the meantime, seeking psychological support to work through the anxiety and grief may be beneficial.

–Eleenor Abraham, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

–Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

Copyright Robert T. Muller.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

3 Teaching children about trauma-e64c0cff78bc1c36a18b5896fe10be70f88635cd

Teaching Children about Trauma: The “River Speaks” Series

00Child Development, Emotion Regulation, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Grief, Therapy, Trauma March, 16

Source: Freaktography on Flickr

In her latest series of children’s books, River Speaks, author Sandy Stream conveys the emotional turmoil that children and families go through when dealing with trauma.

Children who have undergone loss, abuse, and other traumatic experiences are often unable to fully understand or express their feelings. Their inability to verbalize the emotional impact the crisis had on them makes it difficult for therapists to determine how to best help them heal.

Although research has shown children’s literature to be a helpful tool in therapy, its use is still not particularly common.

The stories found in Stream’s books are meant to help therapists provide relatable experiences for children to help them come to terms with their own trauma. They revolve around a baby bird, Sparky, who is snatched away from his family. In dealing with his captivity, escape, and eventual return, Sparky and his family learn to articulate the complex feelings they experience.

Sparky does return home, but the series does not employ the conventional happily-ever-after ending. Instead, the stories address the turmoil felt by everyone both during his captivity and after his return.

The seven books in this series, Sparky Can Fly, Sparky’s Mama, Tweets and Hurricanes, Feathers, Flex, Roots, and The River, all feature a different main character, retelling the narrative from the perspective of the victim, the parents, the siblings, and the therapist. Each book also deals with different emotional themes, including grief, loss, isolation, and acceptance.

Many of the communication strategies seen in River Speaks can be linked to Jean Piaget’s work on child development. According to Piaget, healthy coping and a sense of self cannot exist without establishing trusting relationships during childhood. Trauma can interrupt this process, and the River Speaks series is intended to restart and re-establish healthy connections.

Research, including that of psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, professor at Boston University, shows that children must understand the emotions caused by trauma. This research emphasizes that therapists should teach children to regulate emotional distress, with the first step being acknowledgment of the distress’ severity.

Stream’s metaphorical approach helps children grasp the complex concepts that make the healing process. Comparing Sparky’s inability to express anger and grief to “hurricanes” and “tweets” helps make the abstract more tangible.

This strategy allows the River Speaks stories to personify complex psychological issues such as emotional defense mechanisms like denial, fear of abandonment, and Stockholm syndrome, making her books well-suited to children as young as three or four years of age.

Stream’s stories are accompanied by illustrations from Yoko Matsuoka. The colourful drawings were designed to keep the oftentimes-dark subject matter child-friendly, and work well in conjunction with Stream’s metaphorical portrayals of emotions and trauma.

Such illustrations are a common tool in dealing with childhood trauma. The use of visual art to depict emotional reactions has been found to benefit children during the normal grieving process. A paper by Cynthia O’Flynn at North Central University explains that art therapy can be especially beneficial for children suffering from serious traumatic grief.

The article cites numerous other studies reporting that art allows children to bypass the language and vocabulary needed to explain their grief or loss, making self-expression much easier. The children are able to perceive greater control over their emotions and feel safe while reflecting upon their experiences.

Alexa S. Rabin of Alliant International University reinforced these findings in 2012, stating that art is an exercise which allows children to assert themselves and their boundaries. Rabin explained that such therapy significantly decreases acute stress symptoms, noting that the purpose of trauma treatment is to help children find a way to cope.

Stream’s books bridge the two sets of findings—using both art and language to reach out to children and better their self-expression across both media. A therapist using Stream’s books would be more flexible in tailoring the therapeutic style to the child’s age and individual needs.

Feedback from psychologists such as Jacqueline A. Carlton and fellow author Cheryl Eckl, applaud Stream’s attempt at tackling such difficult subject matter. And while research would be needed to gauge the helpfulness of her specific stories, existing research suggests that her books may ease therapy for both clinicians and children.

– Olivia Jon, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

After a Stillbirth, Interpersonal Support Facilitates Coping

After a Stillbirth, Interpersonal Support Facilitates Coping

00Caregiving, Depression, Featured news, Grief, Health, Parenting, Resilience October, 15

Source: Judit Klein on Flickr

Over 2 million babies are stillborn every year worldwide, resulting from a genetic or physical defect, an illness suffered by the mother, or problems with the umbilical cord. In more than one quarter of cases, no cause can be determined.

In a recent interview with The Trauma & Mental Health Report, Heather, a mother and mature student shared her experiences surrounding stillbirth and commented on the services provided for families.

I chose to name my baby Benjamin.  I didn’t return to work after I got the ultrasound results and eventually I resigned.  I didn’t want to face the office, or their sympathy.

Immediately after a stillbirth, parents are offered various services to help manage their grief.

I was given a private room for the induction – an artificially stimulated labour – and received options for grief counselling and the services of priests and rabbis at the hospital.  We had him cremated, and the tiny basket of ashes was buried on my grandmother’s grave.  My husband and I also received genetic counselling to try to find the cause of the loss.

Parents of stillborn children have the option to see, touch, or hold their baby.  Memories that validate their experiences as parents can be created through handprints or footprints, pictures, or keeping locks of hair.  It can be overwhelming to make these decisions while coping with the reality that your child is gone, but these options may help parents make sense of their grief.

I was 21 weeks pregnant, so I was already making plans, thinking of names, and my daughter was looking forward to having a sibling.  I also looked physically pregnant… I was ready to have a baby, and in a fleeting moment he was gone.  It was so hard to move forward after that, and it was hard to reach out for help.

Interactions with hospital staff following the death of the child may influence how parents cope.  A 2013 study by Soo Downe, an associate professor at the University of Central Lancashire, found that parents believed there was only one chance to create an environment conducive to coping.  This means that positive memories and outcomes following a stillbirth depend as much on caring attitudes and behaviors of staff as on high-quality clinical procedures.

When interactions with hospital staff did not create a supportive environment, parents became distressed, which added to their grief and affected their ability to manage their jobs, family life, and mental health.  This additional stress can ultimately impact couples’ willingness to seek help.  When these interactions were more compassionate, parents were more likely to have positive, healing memories that aided their psychosocial recovery.

It is also common for parents to develop poor coping strategies, and to adjust differently after the loss of a child. Those who do not seek out services because of shame, fear, or anger tend to suffer in silence. A study by social worker Joanne Cacciatore, Faculty Associate at Arizona State University, shows that women who attend a support group develop fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms than those who do not.

Opening up to other bereaved mothers is helpful for reducing grief and other mental health difficulties.  Partners may also find reaching out to religious or spiritual leaders, funeral homes, and support groups helpful.  Online resources like blogging can also be useful for parents looking to connect in an anonymous way.

Heather was lucky to have the support and experience of the women in her family, which played a critical role in how she managed her grief.

I was grateful that my mother came out to stay with me during the termination.  Talking with her helped.  Other family members also began opening up for the first time about their experiences with miscarriage and stillbirth.  I didn’t feel so alone.

Some organizations are working to educate marital partners on coping styles and seeking out support.  The International Stillbirth Alliance works to improve stillbirth prevention and bereavement care for those who have lost a child.  Although they do not provide individual services, they work with other organizations to connect locally and globally to improve standards of care.

Women who have had a stillbirth can benefit from bereavement services and support of their loved ones.  Those who suffer in silence will likely do so much longer than they have to.

– Danielle Tremblay, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright: Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

Grieving the Loss of a Child: The Five Stage Myth

Grieving the Loss of a Child: The Five Stage Myth

00Caregiving, Featured news, Grief, Identity, Memory, Parenting, Resilience, Trauma June, 15

Source: Bethan/Flickr

When we think of death, dying and grief, no one therapist has had the impact and staying power as that of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her five stage model, presented in her classic, On Death and Dying, has been an influential voice on the topic for decades.

But in the last few years, work in the field has put the universality of that model in question. Some, such as Russell Friedman, therapist and director of the Grief Recovery Institute argue that with many kinds of loss people don’t grieve in five stages at all.

Originally intended to describe experiential stages of people facing their own impending death, mental health providers as well as school counsellors and educators seem to have generalized the Kübler-Ross model to a multitude of situations, some applicable, some not so much.

In a recent interview, The Trauma & Mental Health Report spoke with Katherine, who described her personal reactions throughout the first year after the loss of her son, Ben, who was killed in a car accident ten days shy of his twenty-first birthday. Like many coping with loss, her grief did not follow the patterns described by Kübler-Ross, it was much less predictable.

Katherine: I decided to see a social worker a few months after Ben died. We talked about grief after loss and the counsellor recited Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stage grief model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This didn’t describe how I was feeling at all…

During the first few months after the accident, the only way I can describe how I was feeling is that there was no ‘feeling.’ It was as if my heart was ripped out and stomped on. There was nothing left, but a complete numbness.

According to clinical psychologists Jennifer Buckle and Stephen Fleming, co-authors of Parenting after the Death of a Child: A Practitioner’s Guide, this feeling of numbness described by Katherine, is often the first grieving experience reported by bereaved parents. Coupled with this sense of numbness, bereaved parents, especially mothers, feel vulnerable and unprotected in what is now considered to be an unfair world.

Eventually the numbness subsides and the unsettling and preoccupying images of the child’s death take over. Almost all bereaved parents make reference to traumatic memories. Even parents not present when their child died describe the trauma experienced as if they were physically there and directly involved.

Katherine: The nightmares just didn’t want to go away. I would have the same reoccurring dream. I would see a red traffic light and hear cars crashing, and then I would wake up in panic. It came to the point where I was anxious every night before bed; I knew what was coming, another nightmare or barely any sleep. I can’t recall having a peaceful sleep the first few months.

Katherine’s nightmares became less frequent over time, but still crept up on occasion. In Buckle and Fleming’s view, the impact of trauma can lessen for some over time; but for others, the images and violent memories may vividly persist.

Grieving parents also fight with recurring flashes of past memories they shared with their deceased child. After a child’s death, most parents feel as if a part of their life has been erased, this is a very frightening. To cope, some parents will resort to avoiding places they associate with the deceased child.

Katherine: It took me over a year to set foot in another hockey arena. Ben was coming home from hockey the night of the accident… just the idea of going into an arena was painful. All the memories… watching him learn how to skate, going to hockey practices, and going with the family to hockey tournaments. I was trying to avoid that pain.

Bereaved parents put a lot of energy into avoiding feelings, memories and places that remind them of the child. At times they also ruminate, thinking about what could or should have been.

Katherine: Sometimes I can’t help it, something will remind me of Ben, and I immediately think about what things would be like now if he was still around. It gets really hard at family get-togethers and around birthdays and holidays. Not having him there… a parent can never get used to that.

Psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoecksema, on faculty at Yale University, reports that women tend to ruminate more if they were battling depression before their child’s death, in comparison to women who were not. Elderly bereaved parents also tend to ruminate more than younger bereaved parents. With more free time on their hands, there is occasion to think about what might have been.

So why do some parents have an easier time adjusting after the loss of a child, compared to others?

To move forward, grief counsellors tend to agree that parents need to experience their own pain, keep the deceased child’s memory alive, and accept the loss, a notion that aligns well with the Kübler-Ross “acceptance” stage. Parents who continue to avoid don’t adjust so well.

The ability to learn from bereavement helps parents take responsibility for creating a new purposeful life. Irvin Yalom, author of Existential Psychotherapy posits that when parents find it too painful to learn from their bereavement experience, they are unwilling to “feel true feelings guiltlessly.” For parents to adjust well, realising that it’s okay to be happy again is crucial.

The loss of a child is likely the most difficult thing a parent can endure. Perhaps it is fitting that a life experience so profound would turn out to be complex and hard to fit into predictable stages.

– Tessie Mastorakos, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

166970-171787

State of Emergency: Suicide in First Nations Communities

00Addiction, Anger, Depression, Education, Featured news, Grief, Health, Identity, Politics, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Spirituality, Suicide, Trauma December, 14

On April 17th 2013, Chief Peter Moonias declared a state of emergency in the community of Neskantaga. Two suicides within days of each other are only the most recent in a string of sudden deaths that have ravaged the group. 

In the four months prior, seven people died, four of them from suicide, and twenty more made suicide attempts. In a community as small and remote as Neskantaga (the reserve is home to 300 people and is only accessible by plane), the residents are tight-knit. And the losses of their family members, friends and neighbours have left many struggling to cope.

Suicide is disturbingly common among some Inuit and First Nations groups, with the rate in some communities eleven times higher than the Canadian average. Overall, First Nations peoples have a suicide rate twice the norm in Canada, a statistic that has been stable for at least three decades.

Colonization of the Americas has had a profound effect on Indigenous populations. In the centuries since first contact, 90% of the American Indigenous population has been wiped out due to plagues, warfare, and forced relocations. The legacy of land seizures and residential schools still haunts these groups.

The immediate survivors of these incidents would undoubtedly be traumatized, but many of the people who have committed suicide in recent years were not personally exposed. How can trauma inflicted centuries ago have an impact on current suicide rates?

The answer lies in the concept of historical or collective trauma, which Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Associate Professor at the University of New Mexico, defines as “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan, and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences.”

Also known as generational grief, the trauma results from suffering profound losses in areas such as culture and identity, without resolution. Unresolved, deep seated emotions like sadness, anger and grief are passed on from generation to generation through parental practices, relations with others and culture-wide belief systems.

In everyday life, the trauma manifests itself through social problems like drug use, familial abuse and violence. These events can cause traumas of their own and result in depression and PTSD, both of which increase suicide attempts.

Young people are especially at risk. In the cohort of 15-24, the rate of completed suicides is five to seven times the national (Canadian) average, and suicide attempts are even more frequent 

Chris Moonias (no relation to Chief Peter Moonias), an emergency response worker in Neskantaga, told the CBC that since the end of 2012, “We average about ten suicide attempts per month, and at one time we surpassed thirty attempts in one month.”

In addition to unresolved grief, Cynthia Howard of Laurentian University identifies several factors that contribute to suicides in Aboriginal communities. These include: attendance at residential schools and abuse experiences there, forced assimilation, displacement, and adoptions. These experiences have left legitimate feelings of distrust towards dominant American and Canadian cultures and feelings of loss of culture.

Some people also feel strung between two cultures (dominant culture and their own band’s culture) while essentially belonging to neither. Feeling alienated and lacking a sense of belonging can leave many people depressed and feeling that their lives lack a sense of purpose.

Other issues such as low socioeconomic status and extreme poverty, along with low levels of education and lack of opportunity have lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

“Learned helplessness” occurs when a group or individual, usually after a series of disastrous events, believes they have no control over the outcome of any situation, and that perceived failures in the present will likely continue into the future. Without hope, people sometimes feel that living is worse than not living. This feeling is only exacerbated by a shared history of trauma and its consequences, and can culminate in suicide.

Unfortunately, many people suffering do not receive adequate help. Their families and friends are also left without professional support, continuing the cycle of unresolved grief.

Perhaps it is fitting that Chief Moonias of Neskantaga called a state of emergency. His community has reached a tipping point and must be healed in order to move forward. 

As of now, the federal Canadian government has offered some monetary and human aid, but unless we go beyond band-aid solutions, frequent suicides and their consequences will continue to haunt Neskantaga.

– Contributing Writer: Jennifer Parlee, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

 Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kittysfotos/6235090832/”>Kitty Terwolbeck</a

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

163216-167891

Fear of Ebola Leaves Orphaned Children Abandoned

00Anxiety, Child Development, Cognition, Deception, Diet, Fear, Featured news, Grief, Health, Parenting, Politics, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Sleep, Stress, Teamwork, Trauma October, 14

13-year-old Jennette’s (name changed by UNICEF) grandmother died from Ebola. Shortly after attending the funeral, Jennette began to feel sick. When fever developed, she was taken to a local treatment center along with her mother and sister. All three family members tested positive for Ebola. Against all odds, they were successfully treated and released.

Jennette broke down in tears as she spoke about her experience as a victim of Ebola to Timothy La Rose, a Communication Specialist with UNICEF Guinea. Despite being healthy again, Jennette could not feel good about her recovery, now facing the stigma of being an ‘Ebola contact’.

“I cannot return home [to] my aunt who threatened me a lot when I was sick. So far she has never asked about my fate.”

The WHO (World Health Organization) estimates Ebola fatality rates between 25 and 90 percent. Passed on through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, symptoms are gruesome and can include internal and external bleeding. Currently, there are no approved vaccines, and the 2014 outbreaks in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have created immense fear among those living in affected regions. Even in the United States, by October 2014 a handful of cases have quickly led to panic in some regions.

Jennette is only one of the many children facing the consequences of neglect due to the distrust surrounding Ebola survivors. UNICEF estimates that about 3,700 children have lost one or both parents to the current outbreak.

UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa, Manuel Fontaine, said, “these children urgently need special attention and support; yet many of them feel unwanted and even abandoned.”

After surviving Ebola or losing a family member to the virus, these children are being shunned by surviving relatives due to fear of reinfection. “Orphans are usually taken in by a member of the extended family, but in some communities, the fear surrounding Ebola is becoming stronger than family ties,” Fontaine told CNN.

Orphans—some as young as two years old—are in the streets alone, lacking proper shelter, healthcare, and nutrition. Many of these children have undergone extreme trauma. Some have spent weeks in isolation wards without caregivers or proper mental healthcare. The New York Times reported a gut-wrenching scene:

In the next ward, a 4-year-old girl lay on the floor in urine, motionless, bleeding from her mouth, her eyes open. A corpse lay in the corner — a young woman, legs akimbo, who had died overnight. A small child stood on a cot watching as the team took the body away, stepping around a little boy lying immobile next to black buckets of vomit. They sprayed the body and the little girl on the floor with chlorine as they left.

Surviving children must also struggle with the grief of losing parents and siblings. “The hardest part of the job is telling parents their children have died or separating children from their parents,” Malcolm Hugo, a psychologist working in Sierra Leone, told the Guardian.

Many children are displaying symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that may develop after exposure to trauma. Intense grief, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, and extreme cognitive impairment are being reported in children who are most affected. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are also common.

The WHO reports that the most severely affected countries, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia lack resources to help those affected by the outbreak.

Many humanitarian aid agencies like Doctors Without Borders have sent physicians and healthcare workers to help in the treatment and containment of the disease. However, very little psychological or medical help is available for orphaned survivors. UNICEF has appealed for $200 million to provide emergency assistance to affected families but has only received a quarter of the amount so far.

Currently, the organization is looking at unique ways to provide emotional support. In Liberia, they are working with the government to train mental health and social workers. UNICEF will also be working with Ebola survivors who are now immune to the disease to provide support to children quarantined in health centres.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Fontaine explained, “Ebola is turning a basic human reaction like comforting a sick child into a potential death sentence.” Further work needs to be done to abolish the harmful distrust surrounding Ebola survivors, and strengthen family and community support. Without this support, orphaned children face a harsh and unwarranted emotional toll, alone.

– Contributing Writer: Khadija Bint Misbah, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

162693-167361

For Families Touched by Homicide, the Media Prolongs Pain

00Featured news, Grief, Health, Law and Crime, Media, Memory, Parenting, Resilience, Stress, Trauma October, 14

On January 1st, 2008, fourteen year old Stefanie Rengel was murdered a few meters outside of her Toronto home.

After receiving a mysterious phone call from someone she believed may have been a friend, Stefanie put on her shoes, told her younger brother that she would be right back, and ran out the door. She never returned.

Leading a normal life one day, and suddenly being thrust into the inevitable bureaucracy that follows a murder is excruciating for families affected by homicide.

The Trauma & Mental Health Report had the chance to speak with Stefanie’s mother, police officer Patricia Hung, who discusses how media involvement and court proceedings sometimes prolonged the healing after her teenage daughter’s murder. She also commented on support available for bereaved parents.

Patricia: Trying to get justice for Stefanie, in some ways… it kept her alive. It gave us something to focus on. I don’t know if that prolonged the grieving, but it certainly spread it out. When a child dies in a car accident, and there are no reporters or trial, you have no choice but to deal with it all right then. For us, we dealt with it a little at a time.

For families affected by homicide, the grief is drawn out. The media, bail hearings, preliminary trials, adjournments, mental health assessments, impact statements, perhaps a trial and hopefully a sentencing, all act as constant reminders of the tragedy. Prolonged investigations and legal processes have these families re-living the trauma of what happened to their loved ones.

Patricia: The day after Stefanie died the reporters were there –it was terrible– it felt like an attack, when all we wanted was privacy. They would come to our door at all hours of the day and night. They would go to my children’s schools and would piece together a false relationship between Stefanie and her killer.

Following a high profile murder case, reporters can unwittingly create chaos for families. The constant questioning, often well intentioned, can turn into intrusive and harmful reminders of the trauma.

Patricia: In the beginning, the press is really friendly to you because they want the gory details and all the juicy information. If you say one wrong word, they can turn on you [for a story]. The last thing grieving families need is to feel tried in the newspapers.

Unfortunately, most bereaved parents aren’t sure what it is they need right after their child’s death. They often feel as though no stranger is going to be able to help them and are unaware of how important it is to reach out for help.

Victim Crisis Assistance and Referral Services (VCARS) is a Canadian charitable service, with 48 sites in Ontario alone that provide immediate on-site assistance to victims affected by tragedy. Bereaved families can use victim services at any point during their recovery even if they initially decline assistance. Victim services offer a variety of support programs for long term assistance and can even help families deal with the media.

Patricia: Being a police officer and having to go through the legal system, I realized how scary it must be for other families who have absolutely no idea what to expect. So to those families who are feeling lost and overwhelmed, know that someone from victim services can be taking notes for you at the preliminary trial, someone can guide you while preparing for your impact statement, and can sit with you during trial.

One of the great difficulties at trial for bereaved parents is informing the judge or jury on how their child’s death affected their life. Impact statements can help determine the offender’s sentence, and parents feel the pressure; victim services help families write these. 

Patricia: Testifying and giving an impact statement was very difficult. I was trying to make sure that I wouldn’t mess it up. You’re so worried that if you say something wrong it could screw everything up. 

And adding to the heartache: 

Patricia: There are things that you don’t expect to happen that do. When I was at court, I went to the washroom and the accused’s mother was in there. It was just so hard. At the time, it wasn’t me against her. I actually felt quite sorry for her… it was a whirlwind of emotions.

Trial is very draining for families. Not only do they hear details of the child’s death, but also the accused is just feet away. Having external support such as VCARS ensures that bereaved families are aware of what steps they need to take and provides comfort at a time when family ties can become strained. 

Once a verdict is made, bereaved families still have much to deal with. Grieving the loss of a child never really ends. As time passes, families fill their lives with new memories and the moments of grief become more intermittent.

But of course, as parole hearings approach, families have to face the trauma of losing their child all over again.

– Contributing Writer: Tessie Mastorakos, The Trauma and Mental Health Report 

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

 Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

162180-166807

No Place to Be a Child

00Anxiety, Child Development, Cognition, Depression, Education, Empathy, Environment, Featured news, Grief, Health, Meditation, Resilience, Social Life, Stress, Therapy, Trauma, Treatment October, 14

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children” – Mahatma Gandhi

Over 18 million children are currently living in regions affected by war. While most humanitarian aid groups focus on meeting the basic physical needs of these children, in the midst of armed conflict, cognitive, social and emotional development is often inhibited and overshadowed by regional chaos.

Exposed to violent, traumatic and stressful situations that threaten their sense of stability and well-being, children have few places to simply be children, where they can play, learn and socialize safely. And few resources are in place to help them heal from the psychological burdens of war.

As the need for rehabilitative and restorative measures gains greater recognition by the international community, a growing number of child rights advocates, organizations and researchers are stepping forward to understand the implementation of psychologically therapeutic programs for war-affected children. The challenge is in figuring out what is needed, what is available and what will work across a variety of cultures, contexts and settings.

Seeking to bring psychological care on a tight budget, academics and policy advisors have emphasized evidence-based programs. Theresa Betancourt, professor and director of the research program on children and global adversity at Harvard’s school of public health, and her colleagues are evaluating the effectiveness of child trauma programs based in countries such as Uganda, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Gaza, Sudan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.

Individual therapeutic interventions such as trauma focused therapy and narrative exposure therapy have shown promise among children affected by war and are approved by UNICEF as preferred techniques.

Group interventions have been used to accommodate the psycho-social needs of a greater number of children. These include Interpersonal group therapy for depression, creative play, mother-child psycho-education and support, and torture group psychotherapy with cognitive behavioural techniques.

Some other psycho-social initiatives have focused on the creation of Child Friendly Spaces (CFS’s) and Temporary Learning Centers (TLC’s) within refugee camp settings or local communities. These provide a child-centered environment for play, basic education and socialization; and they identify children in psychological distress.

But some concerns have been noted. The focus on trauma can lead to community stigmatization. In addition, these therapies are hard to carry out on a large scale due to the high costs of employing highly-trained professionals. Individualized services are rare and reserved for severely distressed children, usually demobilized child soldiers.

Problems arise when trying to apply western definitions and measures of distress that are not necessarily applicable to other cultures and contexts. And in understanding any given child’s psychological functioning, it is important to factor in ongoing stressful events and the social dynamics that a war-affected child must deal with on a daily basis.

There has been a movement away from a traditional western “clinical treatment” model toward a more inclusive, holistic framework of “psycho-social intervention,” termed to reflect the complex interplay between a child’s psychological and social development.

More effective group interventions for children have tended to be those that involve a school setting, address everyday stressors, utilize a form of trauma/grief-focused psychotherapy or use mind-body relaxation and coping techniques such as meditation, biofeedback and guided imagery.

Benefits include decreases in posttraumatic stress disorder, improved coping skills, and greater psychological relief and psycho-social adjustment.

Still, universal, comprehensive, culturally-sensitive psychological services for war-affected children remain a long way off. For more information on mobile psycho-social and education programs for war-affected children, please check out The Freedom to Thrive Foundation. Email FreedomToThriveFoundation@gmail.com to find out how you can get involved.

– Contributing Writer: Adriana Wilson, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today