A Vancouver Island teenage bush party which resulted in multiple stabbings and one arrest — and other incidents like it —will have long-reaching traumatic effects for all those involved, and their loved ones, says a certified expert in counselling psychology.
An outdoor party on April 17 at a popular teen hangout in Comox had a devastating conclusion after a fight broke out, resulting in three youths being hospitalized for stab wounds, and another being arrested by the Comox Valley RCMP.
According to child behaviour counsellor Laura Forseth, such an incident can have numerous physical and mental effects on not only the victims themselves, but also families and their friends, whether or not they were present at the time.
Some signs to watch for include developing new fears (for example, around personal safety or school safety), sleep issues like nightmares, headaches, stomach aches, general muscle tension, reduced concentration on schoolwork, and a decreased desire to socialize with peers.
And while such a traumatic event would affect anyone, regardless of age, the effects on youths can be more severe, simply because of a lack of knowledge and understanding.
“Because of their age, youth may not know what help is available to them or have the ability to access help on their own,” said Forseth, a Canadian certified counsellor with a master’s degree in counselling psychology. “They may also feel embarrassed to reach out for support. They may feel like they need to put on a brave face or power through their feelings without asking for support.
“They also might not really understand what is happening to them psychologically/physically and be confused and reluctant to share their experience with anyone.”
The challenge will be to prevent anyone falling through the cracks. Forseth said the actions taken by the local school district’s crisis team were a crucial first step, and now teachers will have to be diligent in watching out for students that are exhibiting changed behaviour (withdrawn, irritable, newly skipping classes, etc.). And it doesn’t end within the walls of the school.
“If a parent notices that their teen or someone else’s teen seems off, we can talk to that teen about how they’re doing, ask if they need any supports or if they know how to access supports,” Foresth said. “Some youth will be reluctant to ask for help so simply being available, gently curious and empathic can be a good starting place.”
According to Forseth, group trauma differs from individually experienced trauma in that many people are experiencing the stress and shock of the trauma at the same time. This significantly decreases the amount of grounded, calm, and unaffected individuals available to support those that need it.
“If many of our peers are also shocked and traumatized, it’s harder to find a peer with enough head space to also support others,” she said. “If families are shocked and traumatized, it becomes harder for a teen to find a mentally available adult to talk to.”
Forseth said that it’s not only the adults who can help the children in this regard. If peers can spot the signs, they can help their friends begin to work through things as well. As for parents, listening is the key.
“We, as parents, don’t need to rush in to fix the situation,” said Forseth. “We can simply hear and empathize with our teen’s experience.”
Forseth also pointed out the dangers of social media when dealing with such a personal trauma. Victim-blaming, parent-blaming, community-blaming and institution-blaming is ubiquitous.
“It all moves so quickly and we’re all prone to jumping to conclusions to fill in the gaps,” she said. “I’ve heard at least three different versions of what happened and each paints the victims and perpetrator in a different light. I think when an (incident like this) happens we all want an answer and we all want to know who to blame as it creates a sense of control or safety.”
Forseth said the community at large can also play a positive, supportive role.
“We can reach out to families who may have been impacted and see if they need support. We can choose to disengage with social media posts where victim/parent/community blaming is potentially damaging. We can educate the teens in our (circles) about mental health, trauma and the benefit of processing such trauma in a way that feels safe to them.”
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