Mourners erected memorials and signs like this one on Highway 2 in Portapique after the mass shooting that began in the community on April 18, 2020. Photo: Joan Baxter

A group of psychologists from across the province are offering free support sessions starting on Wednesday for Nova Scotians impacted by the mass shootings on April 18 and 19.

In a media release issued Tuesday morning, the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) announced they were collaborating with the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia (APNS) and the Department of Health and Wellness to increase support to Nova Scotians impacted by the tragic events.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, APNS disaster response coordinator and psychologist Victor Day said this is the first time the group’s roster has been activated since the Swiss Air disaster of Sept. 2, 1998.

“We have had a roster of psychologists who volunteered to provide brief free services following any disaster in Nova Scotia, and we’ve had that for 30 years,” Day explained.

“The last time we were actually activated was following Swiss Air and we did some things following that. This is sort of on the shelf, rarely used.”

A memorial at the Portapique church hall. Photo: Joan Baxter.

Last week, he said the committee that manages the roster held its post-disaster committee meeting.

“Because of the likely hundreds of people affected psychologically even in just Colchester County, we thought it would be maybe appropriate to activate our roster,” he said.

He spoke to the NSHA, and said last Thursday they asked for the APNS to help.

“The triggering mechanism actually for our roster is If the publicly normally available services asked for our help. The decision lies more with them than us, although we’re on the shelf available,” Day said.

“It’s not because they’re overwhelmed, as I understand it. They’re putting a lot of extra and good resources into it, so we’re really just supplementing the extra resources that the NSHA itself is putting into helping people.”

As with so many things, COVID-19 is impacting and forcing them to change the way they deliver their post-disaster services.

“Our normal method of delivery would be to get a few, maybe half a dozen people, to go to the site of the disaster. That’s the normal post disaster psychological services plan,” Day said.

“It is not possible for us to go there…So this is different. It’s a wider number of people who will have to do things by video conference or phone, although the benefit of that is that it means any psychologist in the province can be involved.”

The free-of-charge service starts on Wednesday and will operate Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm. Day said when people call the APNS office, the goal is to be able to pass their contact information to one of the psychologists on their roster and within 48 hours have the caller receive an offer for a session.

There are currently 49 psychologists on the APNS’s disaster response roster, with 26 of them having indicated their immediate availability.

“If you’re going to ask me is 26 enough, I don’t know. We have no idea. We will find out soon, but if need be we can probably draw more in,” Day said.

Although it wasn’t outlined in Tuesday’s media release, Day said APNS has initiated a second service that’s not part of their usual post-disaster offering. There are some psychologists who will offer short term — meaning five sessions or fewer — of pro bono therapy for those affected by the mass shooting.

Roadside memorial for Lillian Hyslop on Hwy 4 in Wentworth, who was one of 22 victims of the mass shooting of April 18 and 19, 2020. Photo: Joan Baxter

“When psychologists do the psychological support session, it’s going to be an opportunity for people to talk about how it’s affected them and maybe get suggestions for coping. Some people will find that sufficient,” he said.

“Some people in conversation with the psychologist will decide that they need more help, and if they need more help the psychologist will refer them probably to the NSHA services that are also free and to the normal public services, and the psychologist might also refer them for short term if appropriate to this other list maintained by APNS.”

Day said it’s obvious that public health guidelines around self isolation and social distancing due to COVID-19 are disrupting the things people would normally do to cope with something as tragic as a mass shooting. He said this can compound the sense of grief and loss.

He said colleagues whose work focuses on trauma and anxiety are seeing more people since the shootings.

“Some psychologists are also saying people with a past history of other types of trauma, some of them are being triggered by this recent mass shooting and so they come back for help,” he said. “In some people’s practices there is an uptick with respect to that.”

To arrange a psychological support session, Nova Scotians can call 1-902-422-9183 between 9am and 3pm Monday to Friday.

The Provincial Mental Health Crisis Line is available 24/7 for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis or someone concerned about them. Call (toll-free) 1-888-429-8167.

First Responders Assist for first responders impacted by the tragedy and their families is also accessible by calling 1-888-429-8167.

Anyone wishing to self-refer to the NSHA’s Community Mental Health and Addictions clinics, Withdrawal Management Services, or Opioid Replacement and Treatment Program can call (toll-free) 1-855-922-1122, weekdays 8:30 to 4:30. The line has voicemail only evenings, weekends, and statutory holidays.

Access to supports are also available through NSHA’s online mental health services page.


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Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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