By Tim Kalinowski
Alta Newspaper Group – Lethbridge
A prominent crisis counsellor and trauma expert says the world has never seen anything like the COVID-19 crisis in recent memory, and it is aggravating already difficult human interactions in the workplace and in the home.
Lethbridge-based Kevin Cameron is executive director of North American Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response. He and his team travel all over North America to set up emergency crisis counselling during highly traumatic events such as the Humboldt Broncos bus accident, and the La Loche and Taber school shootings. NACTATR advises school districts and other government organizations on the human toll of such events.
In recent weeks, team members have been extremely busy advising school districts and governments across Canada on how to deal with the emotional and mental fallout from the current COVID-19 crisis, Cameron confirms.
“None of us have lived through a worldwide pandemic,” he states. “This here has been constant consultation across North America, and in particular Canada, as governments and school districts and others are trying to figure out how to best take care of themselves, interact with their kids and predict, if you will, what they are maybe going to be in for as the weeks and the months go on.”
The usual crisis situation follows a pattern, says Cameron: a traumatic event happens; there is an immediate outpouring of grief, anxiety and other emotions; and then things transition relatively quickly to the aftermath and longer term emotional support and recovery of those involved.
With coronavirus, you have to think of it more as a trauma unfolding in “slow motion,” he says.
For those in leadership positions, he explains, they have to understand how the protracted nature of the current crisis will impact the mental health of those under them.
Nobody can be expected to sustain a crisis response attitude for weeks or months on end without cracking, Cameron states.
You have to build in supports which will allow those employees to feel safe to express those moments when they just can’t hold it together anymore.
“One of my jingles is: ‘everybody deserves a good meltdown every now and then,'” he says. “And we shouldn’t expect people to be serene all the time. Treat the big things big, and the little things little, and because this is big; if we afford people the opportunity to have a bad friggin’day and not get all revved up about, most people feel supported. They will have their bad moment, and will then be able to sustain themselves.”
Cameron says a crisis like this tests the mettle of organizations and family structures like none other, and aggravates the stresses and flaws which were already there.
“Trauma, and in particular highprofile trauma, doesn’t lead to new dynamics,” he explains. “Instead, high-profile trauma simply intensifies already existing dynamics. What that means in a family or a workplace which were healthy and functional before COVID-19 hit our shores, they will have their ups and downs but they will get through it just fine. But if it’s an organization that is already a closed, toxic, divided, human system, they will struggle through COVID-19.”
Cameron suggests some strategies and principles which will help groups, families and organizations come through this current test whole and well.
Strengthen your existing relations, he says, and reach out for others who can help you bear your stresses, or others who can help you simply take your mind off the crisis by talking about normal and routine things.
“Two people can absorb more anxiety than just one person can on their own,” he explains. “If two people can absorb more anxiety than just one, then three can absorb more anxiety than just two. It really is about the human connection and reaching out. You need to be open every now and then about what you are feeling with a key person. And try to do the same for somebody else. In essence, pass it forward.”
“Another (principle) would be to create routines inside your own home,” Cameron adds. “Having routines, getting up as though you were still going to school.”
Cameron also says limit your exposure to live media and broadcast news, or take turns having one person watch one day and another watch another.
“The principle there is actually simple: we only have so much emotional energy,” he says. “If you watch all day long news coverage of the deaths in Italy, Spain or America, and you watch people tell their stories, the human organism can only bear so much weight. So some people are expending all their energies focused on other people’s stories and don’t have enough to take care of their own.”
Print and written media without an abundance of visual or auditory stimuli, Cameron feels, gives people better mental and emotional distancing from anxiety and fear in a crisis.
“There is a benefit to just reading the words without the auditory and visual nature associated with live images,” he confirms.
The North American Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response offers more resources and information on how to deal with the human fallout from the COVID-19 crisis on its website at nactatr.com.