Commentary: Effects of trauma can last for years after episodes so don’t rush healing
Recovery from traumatic experiences has no straight line. Being accepting when people share their challenges is one way society can recover after the heart-breaking River Valley High tragedy, says Cindy Ng.
SINGAPORE: It has been a heart-breaking week.
“The River Valley incident has weighed heavily on our minds and in our hearts,” Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said on Tuesday (Jul 27).
Coping with the flood of emotions will require talking through the incident and our feelings, including seeking professional counselling. But just as important is the need not to rush through the process but let the journey of recovery take its own course.
LETTING HEALING TAKE ITS COURSE
At 12, Lisa* endured traumatic episodes of physical abuse from her mother’s partner. At times, after being physically assaulted, Lisa would be locked in the toilet alone for hours in the night.
But at 21 today, Lisa is gainfully employed and has healthy relationships with her peers and a partner.
However, she recently confided in her social worker that even after nine years, she continues to experience deep fear and a surge of anxiety whenever she steps into her toilet at night.
The darkness of the night and the sound of the running water reminded her of those horrible days from her youth.
It’s not something she can erase from her life easily so Lisa tells herself she has to live with it and has found ways to cope.
READ: Coping with trauma: Acknowledge incident and talk about emotions, say experts after River Valley High death
Therapy over the years has helped. Lisa remembers the specific grounding exercises that she has learnt from her sessions and uses them to regulate her emotions.
These techniques, such as deep breathing, visualisation and being aware of one's body movement, helped her overcome distress by rooting her in the present.
Lisa is trying to move on. She has learnt to have compassion on herself when she relives the fear and anxiety from her ordeal in her day-to-day activities. She accepts that her history is part of her life story.
For Lisa, it has taken years, support from her partner and a lot of self-compassion to achieve this.
TRAUMA OF LOSING SOMEONE SUDDENLY CAN RETURN
Another client I’ve seen in the course of my social work is Casey* who lost her colleague to suicide last year.
Casey’s colleague was struggling with some difficulties at work and had trouble coping emotionally during the pandemic as his circle of friends shrank when COVID-19 restrictions curbed gatherings.
Casey frequently questions whether there were identifiable signs and whether she could have done something to save a life. They had spoken the day before her colleague’s passing. Casey had no clue she was about to lose her colleague so suddenly and tragically.
The months after the suicide saw Casey spiral downwards into an emotional abyss. She sought therapy to manage the post traumatic symptoms of flashbacks, guilt, sadness and pain. It took six months for the episodes to ease.
But Casey was triggered recently reading about the recent death of the 13-year-old student in River Valley High School. She experienced panic attacks and low moods.
After discussing her symptoms with me, she realised the events reminded her of the same experience of helplessness, distress and shock when learning about her colleague’s sudden departure.
READ: The rise of mental health awareness – and the stigma that remains attached to certain conditions
KNOWING WHAT IS TRAUMA
An extraordinarily stressful event can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope in my experience counselling families and individuals who have experienced immense difficulties in their lives.
Often, this feeling of loss of control continues after the event and can intensify their responses to other life events that can heighten their sense of threat even though such triggers may pale in comparison to their past trauma.
Medical experts have pointed out that while experiencing a traumatic event, the human body releases cortisol which triggers a fight-flight-freeze reaction in us.
While cortisol levels generally subside after, sometimes the stress levels can remain high. Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder can experience difficulties calming down when triggered by stress inducing situations.
When reminders of their past traumatic experiences take place, memories are retriggered and the individual experiences a similar trauma to recent events.
What happened in River Valley High School will stay with us for a while.
We might feel, to different degrees, the same sense of loss, of anxiousness and uncertainty in life. We might hug our loved ones a little more these days, cry a little more easily, or experience more difficulties in concentration at work or in school.
Most of us don’t necessarily experience trauma symptoms the way Lisa and Casey do, but many of us can feel a little down and experience stress on our mental health, which we might brush aside.
We ought to pay attention to the state of our mental well-being, which directly impacts our physical health, our relationships at home and at the workplace, and our quality of life.
Unfortunately, stigma, prejudice and discrimination against people with mental illness prevent many of us from having productive conversations about our mental well-being.
But we can start by acknowledging our emotions, being more accepting and offering validation to those among us who have been affected by the death in River Valley High School.
READ: Commentary: When we call people with strange behaviour mentally ill, we reinforce mental health stigma
While adversities can shake up our lives, people can still grow emotionally stronger after.
Famed psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s explain that sailing through hard times can help people develop a new understanding about themselves, the world they live in, the future they want and how they can live life more fully.
Tedeschi and Calhoun describes seven areas of growth possible after a traumatic event which include a greater appreciation of life and close relationships, increased compassion and altruism, the identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life, as well as greater awareness and utilisation of personal strengths, enhanced spiritual development and creative growth.
We rather life be smooth sailing without the horrible events that lay in wait but survivors I’ve met often report that they have grown from the ashes of their trauma and changed the way they relate to the world.
It does not mean they no longer have thoughts about their hardships. But they have arrived at a state where they can accept and integrate the traumatic event in their life story, without it defining him or her entirely.
The challenge for us as a society now is to shift our focus away from what happened on that day of the tragedy to the present, even the future. Let’s look at how we can develop communities of care so that we can support one another better and find healing from this River Valley High incident.
*Pseudonyms have been used in this commentary.
Mental health groups have seen a surge in calls since COVID-19 hit. Who are the people tirelessly manning these helplines? Find out on Heart of the Matter.
Cindy Ng is Director of Melrose Home at Children’s Aid Society. She is a social worker by training with extensive experience working with low-income families and persons experiencing violence and abuse.