Trauma Chasers

MICHAEL MARTIN

December 04, 1991|By MICHAEL MARTIN

It used to be we had only one type of creature to avoid after atragedy: the peculiar breed of lawyer known as the ''ambulance chaser.'' Now a new animal is emerging -- the ''trauma chaser.''

About two years ago, a gunman barged into a kindergarten classroom in Natchez, Mississippi, shot his estranged wife twice (she was not fatally injured), then held the children hostage while he raped two other women in the same room. None of the children were injured.

A terrifying scene, to be sure. A scene that most children will never have to witness in their entire lives, much less during the first year of their formal education.

Into Natchez ''flocked'' (according to news reports) a horde of psychologists, ready to repair damage to the kids' fragile psyches. They were responding to a call by school officials, who not only sicced the psychologists on children whose parents sent them to school the next day, but also ''called parents of absent children, urging them to bring their children to school for help.''

These school officials were saying that they didn't believe the parents of the ''traumatized'' children were capable of delivering the comfort and reassurance that could be imparted by out-of-town strangers. In their eagerness to provide the latest in high-tech trauma counseling, they had written the childrens' parents out of the equation.

This scene repeats itself over and over, most recently in Baltimore, where counselors were sent to the elementary school of a girl killed in a drive-by shooting. It is unclear whether any of the other children even witnessed the shooting.

We seem to have forgotten that children, while sensitive and easily frightened, are also incredibly resilient. They deal with fear every day, fears that we often forget were a constant companion at the age of five or six: fear of the dark, of the school bully, of embarrassment, of punishment. How did we deal with those fears? I hope I'm not speaking only for myself when I say it was parents who took away fear and hurt most effectively.

Should psychologists be involved at all? In an event like the rape and shooting in Mississippi, certainly. But only for a low-key evaluation, or at the specific request of parents. The day after the Natchez incident, 25 psychologists crowded into the elementary school to minister to 22 students. This is, by any standard, gross overkill. One can only hope that the parents who sensibly kept their children home for a three-day weekend told the school officials to send the surplus psychologists back where they came from.

Children who have gone through frightening events need to talk, they need understanding, and mostly they need time to deal with the fear that the event has created in their minds. It is debatable whether they need frantic ''professionals'' armed with whatever theories and props happen to be currently trendy in the world of therapy.

If this were an isolated incident, we could perhaps dismiss it as overreaction on the part of school officials who were themselves traumatized. But the tendency to throw psychologists and psychiatrists at anybody who has undergone a difficult experience is growing. Several recent stories of construction accidents note the presence of ''grief counselors.'' Witnesses of tragic automobile accidents are encouraged to take their experience to professional helpers.

An outgrowth of this phenomenon is the ''support group.'' There's one available for just about everyone, including grandchildren of alcoholics, Sexaholics Anonymous (where does one buy sexahol, anyway?) Spenders Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous. We're all victims of something or other. As David Rieff points out in a recent Harper's essay, saying that everybody is a victim is saying that nobody is.

Perhaps we need to recognize again the value of family, church and friends in dealing with disaster, whether on a group or a personal level. And, dare I say it, we need to realize that death and violence are not aberrations today any more than they have ever been. Real life can't be distilled to a two-minute story on TV. The outmoded concept of ''character building'' is eroded by those who would sanitize and eradicate personal experience, especially ''traumatic'' experience.

Michael Martin is a Baltimore free lance.

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