Manitoba manhunt: Community connectedness can be healing after trauma

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When residents of Gillam, Man., were alerted to the possibility two fugitives could be lurking among them, many families – some for the first time ever – locked their doors.

The extensive manhunt for Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod has dragged from British Columbia to Saskatchewan to northern Manitoba and, most recently, Ontario.

Gillam was once the epicentre of the search. It was there the pair were last seen.

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Heavily armed police units spilled into the remote town of about 1,300 people to search for the two men accused in the deaths of three people.

Residents were warned of potential danger, asked to stay inside their homes and keep an eye out for anything unusual.

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The unusual circumstances and the uncertainty surrounding the case left residents on edge.

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“I locked my doors for the first time in 19 years,” Christine Massan told Global News. “I brought my keys in from my vehicle and locked the doors.”

Karen Donnellan-Fisher, the general manager of a local Co-op, said it’s customary for some locations to be staffed by a single person. But, in the midst of the manhunt, she made a change: “Nobody is being left alone at any time.”

In Port Alberni, B.C. – the hometown of Schmegelsky and McLeod – residents also took an emotional hit.

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“Every day that goes by it changes a little bit, but people are struggling here, for sure,” said Mayor Sharie Minions. “I think a lot of it is worry about how it’s going to end.”

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In the face of tragedy, there can be consequences for mental health.

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Trauma and post-traumatic stress are often attributed to a personal incident experienced by an individual, but the same risks are associated when distress is felt widely, like in communities, according to Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

“There are normal psychological reactions we can experience and expect,” she said. “There will also be individual differences – heightened vigilance about our surroundings, anxiety about going out or being alone, changes in our sleep.”

With the case consistently in headlines, Kamkar said it can be hard to escape. She said it’s important that people find a balance.

“Some people find it helpful if they watch the news, but minimize the frequency,” she said. “Others really want to know what’s going on.”

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However, there is a benefit to sharing the experience, Kamkar said, a “connectedness” that can act as a “buffer” for communities like Gillam and York Landing, Man. — where the suspects were reportedly sighted over the weekend — as they grapple with difficult circumstances.

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“When we feel we’re not alone, especially in a smaller community, there’s some sort of relationship or connection where people can feel comfortable talking to one another,” she said.

“It’s always important to instill a hope that it’s going to turn out for the best.”

‘Shared traumatic exposure’ and families

In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, researchers examined the role of family communication during times of “community threat and uncertainty.”

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, looked at the emotional effect on kids who felt the impact of the attack close to home.

The impact of the attack varied, the study found, depending on how much or how little parents chose to tell their children.

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Researchers posed a number of questions to 460 Boston-area parents of children aged four to 19 about the household discussions they had about the attack. The questions were separated into two parts: How much they told kids about the bombing and how much they said about the subsequent city-wide manhunt for the killer.

More than a third of parents brought up the manhunt to inform their kid what was happening.

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About the same number of parents initiated the discussion and asked their child if they had questions about the attack. Many also openly discussed their own feelings about the situation.

Overall, most parents in the Boston study opted for honesty, which in turn appeared to lower the chance of post-traumatic stress in the child.

The researchers found that children of parents who did the opposite – “avoidance of communication about the events” – were at greater risk for post-traumatic stress.

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An open, honest and meaningful conversation is more likely to prevent a buildup fear and anxiety in a household, said Dr. Nikki Martyn, a child psychologist and head of early childhood studies at the University of Guelph-Humber.

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It’s even more important when the trauma, and exposure to said trauma, is shared.

“When everybody is feeling this – we go out grocery shopping and there’s an ongoing tension – that becomes even more paramount to talk openly about what that feeling is, otherwise our brains make up meaning,” Martyn told Global News.

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“Our brains will fill in the gaps however they think is possible to make meaning of something. Without the context and experience and understanding, we get to worst-case scenario, which isn’t realistic.”

Children aren’t able to decipher that, she said, so it’s up to the parent to make that clear.

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Martyn said it’s not uncommon for parents to hesitate to talk to their kids about these events — in fact, it’s natural — but they should try not to.

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“It’s uncomfortable for them as well,” she said. “They think it’s easier or best not to tell their child about something bad, or lie about it, because they want to reduce it.”

Maintaining a healthy household after “shared traumatic exposure” ultimately rests on communication.

“Find a developmentally appropriate way to discuss it,” she said. “It can be a learning experience for life, to test the reality of your world. ‘If I’m feeling scared, are you feeling scared?’ It’s a reasonable and realistic feeling and we can take that with us throughout our lives.”

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Kamkar suggested a similar silver lining.

“When its community it can translate into a sense of personal growth and can strengthen relationships and more learning,” she said.

“These unfortunate incidents can result, sometimes, in positive long-term experiences.”

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