June 19, 2018
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How to cope after witnessing a traumatic event

By Jackie Farwell, BDN Staff

A number of bystanders, including children, witnessed the July 4 accident that killed a Holden man participating in the Bangor-Brewer parade. One observer described “utter chaos of parents trying to get their kids out of there.”

Witnessing a traumatic event can produce a range of emotional reactions in both children and adults, from sadness to an inability to function that requires professional help, according to mental health experts.

“A reaction is normal, said Greg Marley, a clinical social worker and senior program manager at the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Normal reactions to a traumatic event include:

• Crying.

• Recurring thoughts or images of the event along with emotional reactions such as revulsion or sadness.

• Avoiding thoughts of the event.

Some individuals may find that the event triggers memories of past grief or trauma, Marley said.

“If someone has had other tragedies or deaths in their lives, it may bring up older emotions,” he said.

Eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and talking to loved ones can help, Marley said.

“The real key around this kind of normal reaction is to make sure you’re talking to people, sharing it,” he said.

For most people, the emotional reaction to witnessing a traumatic situation begins to fade after a few days or a week, unless the individual knew the victim or the event has unlocked past trauma or loss, Marley said. When symptoms last beyond 10 days, it may be time to reach out to a loved one or mental health professional, he said.

Signs that an adult or child may need professional help include:

• Difficulty sleeping or night terrors.

• Intrusive images or thoughts of the event that don’t go away.

• Inability to sleep or function in daily life.

For children, parents should provide an opportunity to talk about the traumatic event, without forcing the conversation, Marley said.

“They need to tell their story about it: where they were, who they were with, what they saw, how they felt about it,” he said. “The way anybody works through grief, including a child, might be to tell that story over and over again. That would be pretty normal.”

Marley advised parents to answer questions as honestly as possible and consider reaching out to other adults the child may feel comfortable talking to, such as a grandparent or uncle.

While the July 4 accident was harrowing, children who witnessed it may not need professional help, he said, encouraging parents to monitor their child’s response.

“Some children won’t have a reaction to it, even if they witnessed it,” Marley said. “They won’t have an emotional reaction, they won’t need to talk about it. For some kids that’s normal as well, and it may come out later or it might not.”

For information or help, call NAMI Maine at 800-464-5767 or visit www.namimaine.org. For mental health resources for children, contact the Center for Grieving Children in Portland at 775-5216 or visit www.cgcmaine.org. Witnesses can also call their doctor or the state’s crisis hotline at 888-568-1112.

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