The Kent Center 03-19-2003

News & Events

Fire’s psychological pain will test survivors and victims’ families for years

DATE: 03-19-2003
PUBLICATION: Providence Journal Company
PAGE: A-01

A mental-health professional with expertise in mass casualties says Rhode Island responded well from the outset of The Station tragedy, but cautions that the work is not done.

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CRANSTON – Survivors of The Station fire and their families face psychological struggles that will continue for years, Brian W. Flynn, a federal expert on mental health after large-scale disasters, told a gathering of Rhode Island mental-health providers yesterday.

But by moving quickly to assist them, Flynn said, Rhode Island’s mental-health professionals have already gone a long way toward preventing problems in the future. In fact, disaster survivors, eventually, can expect a better life, he said.

“Many of us believe that people do come out stronger from these events,” said Flynn, who has worked with survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center attack, and the school shootings in Littleton, Colo. He is the associate director of the Center for the Studies of Traumatic Stress, at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.

“You did an extraordinary job,” Flynn told about 40 people from Butler Hospital, Kent Hospital, Kent County Mental Health Center and other organizations who gathered at the Cranston Public Library yesterday. Immediately after the disaster, mental-health providers had mobilized at the family resource center in the Crowne Plaza hotel and at the hospitals.

“A ‘disaster membrane’ begins to form around recollections,” Flynn said. “In the early days, it’s very permeable. As time goes on, it thickens and hardens. It gets harder to get in and out. You’re on the inside. Simply by being there … you have set the grounds for a positive future response.

Unlike a natural disaster, a human-caused event can cause people to focus on fixing blame and seeking justice. Litigation, with its slow pace and emphasis on how badly the victims’ lives were damaged, often makes it hard for them to move on.

Victims often have an unrealistic notion of justice,” Flynn said. People believe lots of times that if there is successful litigation, their problems will go away. People can win their suit but wake up the next day still having lost what they’ve lost,” he said.

A disaster’s effects ripple through a community, starting at the core with the seriously injured and relatives of the deceased, and moving in concentric circles through survivors who were exposed to the disaster, to extended family members and rescue and recovery workers, to health-care providers and school personnel, to government officials and affected businesses, to the community at large.

Flynn said that the West Warwick fire was unique because it struck the unusually close-knit Rhode Island community, so its reverbations were felt widely. When so many share the same experience, it can help with healing. A lone survivor of a bad accident is less likely to find a support group.

But the Kent County Mental Health Center has four support groups for fire survivors, and their scope illustrates how many have been hurt. There are groups for survivors and witnesses who were at the fire, for relatives and friends of victims, for those suffering from grief, and for families of victims, survivors or responders.

First responders require special attention, Flynn said. The first suicide after the Oklahoma City bombing was a police officer who had been called a hero. He was facing domestic-violence charges, and could not reconcile the world’s expectations of heroism with his personal problems.

When people are called heroes, “often they are not able in their lives to live up to that, Flynn said.

Flynn cautioned against neglecting the less-obvious victims. For example, he said, when the Beverly Hills Supper Club burned in Southgate, Ky., in 1977, killing 165 people, one of the victims was a worker who called in sick that night because she didn’t feel like working. Her replacement was killed. This survivor wasn’t even there, and yet she was one of the most traumatized.

Mental-health professionals also need help. Hearing stories of horror, grief and loss day after day takes its toll. After the Oklahoma City bombing, the treatment providers who worked with victims suffered an array of physiological illnesses, Flynn said. I don’t think anyone ought to do this full-time for very long,” he said.

Michael A. Lichtenstein, vice president of the Kent County Mental Health Center, said that his staff has been putting in many extra hours to work with fire victims and their families. Even the secretaries who answered the phones were in tears over the stories they heard as people called for help.

“I worry about them,” Lichtenstein said of his staff. “We lose people because they burn out … Add this to a system that’s already stretched.”

None of us got trained in this stuff when we were in school, said Flynn, calling his graduate training in psychology mostly lessons in 14 ways to say ‘uh-huh.'”

That’s not really helpful to disaster survivors, he said.

What is helpful is less well-known, Flynn said in an interview later. There is not enough research to show which interventions, offered when and by whom, will produce the best results in the months and years ahead. It is known that it’s important to intervene early and in more than one way; to rely on a wide variety of healers, such as clergy and school guidance counselors as well as mental-health professionals; and to follow people over time.

We have made extraordinary advances in understanding mental illness,” Flynn said told the gathering. “We have not made … gains in understanding what keeps people healthy.”

Lichtenstein said that people seeking help in his mental-health center are now in varying stages of recovery. One man is still absorbed in taking care of others; he lost a brother, and hasn’t started dealing with his own grief. Others are having trouble communicating their feelings. Some are angry.

But as for reconciliation and healing, Lichtenstein said no one has achieved that yet.