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Time alone doesn’t always heal, Dawson tragedy researchers discover

October, 2010

When Montrealers learned that someone had posted an online video game based on the 2006 Dawson tragedy, students, citizens and the media expressed shock and disgust at the individual’s “incomprehensible insensitivity.”

Conversations on the Web in the days after he was persuaded to remove the offensive game, revealed the banality of unabashed ignorance.

“I didn’t think the game would be popular enough to reach anyone that would be hurt by it,” he wrote.

One Dawson student tried to open his eyes: “I was one of the people in the room when the shooting happened. … I wish other people realized mourning and moving on takes time. It isn’t a quick few days or a week or even a month thing.”

A recently released study on the psychological effects of the tragedy, conducted at Dawson College and involving 854 students and 94 staff, reveals that 30 per cent of the community, twice the expected rate, were negatively affected in the long term.

“We found a lot of people felt distress even if not immediately around the shooter,” said Richard Boyer, one of the researchers. “The stress and emotion are still there for many, 18 months after the shooting.”

While the study focused on post-traumatic stress disorder, which it found at the expected rate of 5.5 per cent, four times the rate of the general population, researchers were surprised to find nearly four times the rate of depression, substance abuse and affective disorders than found in the larger community. It was discovered that the younger students, those who had been in closest proximity of the shooting, those who knew someone who had been killed or wounded and those with a history of mental health issues or drug and alcohol use were the most at risk.

“Even if not nearby, the tragedy had greater impact on them.”

Each case is different, Boyer said. “It is difficult to make a direct link and sometimes those affected don’t want to make a link. They realize they are suffering, but may not know why, and refuse to talk. They believe in time they will feel better, but with psychological wounds, this is not always the case.”

Only 13 per cent of those who needed help sought out a mental health professional, though 14 per cent more searched the Internet and would have consulted if help had been accessible and affordable.

One recommendation in the study is that potentially effective treatments for mental health issues be made available within the framework of a public health care and social services network.

“As a society, we have work to do, because there is a lot of stigma around mental health issues,” Boyer said. “People see it as a weakness, as a lack of self control, when actually these problems are much more complex, involving biological and genetic factors. People wait too long to get help, yet, like in cancer, early treatment is more effective.”

Rosemary Reilly, a Concordia University researcher who studies communities in the aftermath of violence, said the steps Dawson has taken—the “taking back” of the school, the study on the psychological effects of the shooting, publicly supporting the gun registry and a conference next year that will look at the role of education in preventing youth violence—are all steps toward healing.

“The community and the individual need to work in tandem. We must work together and there are roles for spiritual leaders, teachers, public service organizations, all kinds of people, to help a community heal.”



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