Haiti trauma tool works in Newtown

Nearly five months after the Sandy Hook slayings, many caregivers still haven’t had a chance to debrief, says a Mercer counseling professor who specializes in detecting and dealing with the effects of trauma.

By Bob Allen

A tool designed to help pastors deal with trauma following the 2010 Haiti earthquakes is translating well into other cultures, said a Mercer University professor who used the storytelling-based exercise April 26 with clergy in the Newtown, Mass., area.

David Lane, a professor in Mercer’s graduate-level counseling program based at the school’s Atlanta campus, said the chaplains, counselors and clergy who attended Friday’s Leading Congregations through Crisis conference in Wilton, Conn., have experienced “secondary trauma” – known in layman’s terms as compassion fatigue – brought on by the Newtown school shooting that occurred Dec. 14 of last year.

david laneWhile not victims themselves, many worked around Sandy Hook Elementary School, knew someone who was directly affected or have someone in their congregations who was affected. “Guess what?” Lane told spiritual caregivers gathered around tables at Wilton Baptist Church. “You need as much care, almost, as the primary-care folks, because your tank gets empty.”

Lane said an important step in dealing with trauma is debriefing and letting affected people tell their stories. Nearly five months after Dec. 14, conference participants said it was the first chance they had to sit down with a group and process their thoughts.

“Personally, I hadn’t sat around [the] table and had a platform like that to debrief or unpack like that,” said host pastor Jason Coker, a former member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Coordinating Council nominated for election as CBF recorder at the 2013 General Assembly scheduled June 26-28 in Greensboro, N.C.

Lane led a Mercer team invited to the conference who were pulled together by five CBF state organizations because of previous work done in Haiti in conjunction with the Atlanta-based Fellowship. On an initial visit to Haiti, Lane recognized immediately they were dealing with a culture accustomed to transmitting its history in story form.

He Skyped his wife, Donna, also a Ph.D. and an adjunct professor in counseling, and asked her to begin looking for stories from Caribbean culture to use in “narrative therapy,” a method that separates the person from the problem by asking them not about their own experiences but instead to react to those of a character in a story.

“By having a story to focus on, it allows you to externalize with empathy what is happening with that character, and then open up about what is happening to you,” Lane said.

She prayed about it, words began to flow and hours later she put finishing touches on “The Story of the Gold Stone,” told from the perspective of the son of an actual chieftain in what is now the Dominican Republic, conquered by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

While written with Haiti in mind, David Lane said the curriculum since 2010 has been used successfully by missionaries in Malaysia, Dubai, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Cambodia.

“People get it,” he said. “It’s sneaky. We got these guys to debrief, and they hadn’t done that.”

Lane said “critical incident debriefing,” allowing people to sift through and talk about what happened, is “critically important” in dealing with trauma.

“If you can get people to do the homework, they are empowered,” he said.