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Preparing for post-traumatic stress from the St. Mary’s crash

By Rhonda McBride 10:51 AM December 3, 2013

Trauma ripples through communities, experts say

ANCHORAGE – A critical incident counselor said he’s not surprised fallout from a plane crash near St. Mary’s has been felt across Alaska.

The plane’s pilot, a married couple and a 5-month-old baby were among those killed when a Cessna Caravan, which was supposed to be carrying passengers home to neighboring Mountain Village, slammed into the ground Friday night. Six others survived, including the infant’s mother.

Bob Chaney works for Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage, but he’s traveled to a number of small, rural communities to help them cope with the aftermath of tragedies like fatal plane crashes. Chaney compared the impact of the St. Mary’s crash to that of a big rock thrown into a lake.

“I’m sure there have been a lot of conversations about near misses,” Chaney said. “Because much of the travel in Alaska is by small plane, we’re all somewhere in that ripple.”

Although the victims, their families and their friends feel the main force of the impact, others may be touched by tragedy in some unexpected ways.

“There is a ripple effect,” said Chaney, who added that the impact of the trauma can’t be overstressed. “It will cause us to have medical issues, behavioral issues.”

Chaney, who also trains counselors to respond to tragedies, said he tells them that the best medicine is “talk.”

“There is no easy fix, and there’s no easy answer,” Chaney said. “But we do know that helping each other and staying open — even if it’s difficult, even if we don’t feel like it — does help relieve some of the stress.”

In the St. Mary’s plane crash, Village Public Safety Officers and health aides were among the first to help the survivors, which Chaney said makes them very vulnerable.

“Their job is to be heroic. They’re going to be tough. They’re going to say they’re not impacted, but we know that they are.”

Chaney said he’s glad to see that health and safety organizations have begun to pay more attention to the impact of post-traumatic stress among their rank and file. The Bethel-based Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation has offered the services of its “Post-vention” team to St. Mary’s and Mountain Village.  Local schools are keeping a close eye on students and offering counseling.

Also this week, Village Public Safety Officers will attend a stress debriefing in St. Mary’s.

“There is healing in acknowledging and putting words to trauma, even trauma from the past,” said Chaney, who warns that the St. Mary’s crash may reawaken grief in others who have lost loved ones in a plane crash, or perhaps in some other tragedy.  “Even if someone’s further out on the ripple of the effect of the event, they can still have their own issues brought forward.”

Chaney said the ripples from the St. Mary’s crash will go on for years and years, and even longer for those who are affected and don’t talk about it. Once the initial trauma begins to subside and people settle back into their normal routines, some in the community may feel a vacuum and suffer silently. He said it’s important for those who feel overwhelmed to find a safe person and share their feelings.

“So one of the most important things to do is to reach out,” advises Chaney. “And those of us who aren’t so impacted, being respectful of that need for some space, but also being available and not going far away.”

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