From distress to acceptance: overcoming trauma after the Toronto van attack
On Monday afternoon, a van plowed into pedestrians in Toronto’s north end, killing 10 people and injuring 14 others.
For those who witnessed the horrific attack and its immediate aftermath, it may be difficult to shake the mental images of blood and broken bodies strewn alongside Yonge St. that are now etched into their minds. So how can witnesses, both near to the event and watching from afar on television, deal with their trauma?
‘I COULDN’T PROCESS WHAT I WAS SEEING’
Among those who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the horrific attack on Monday was retired social worker Carol Roberts, who was in the area to deal with a parking fine.
That afternoon, Roberts had made an impromptu decision to walk down an alley instead of the main sidewalk on Yonge -- and that could have saved her life. When Roberts finally emerged on Yonge, just moments after the van had passed, she saw bodies scattered across the sidewalk.
“I was scared,” she told CTV News. “I didn’t know what was happening -- I just knew there was carnage in front of me and I couldn’t process what I was seeing.”
Ever since, Roberts says she has been experiencing sweaty palms and other signs of emotional trauma.
“Seeing all those people spread all over the sidewalk, I’m just kind of numb from it all,” she said.
Trauma specialists say there are likely many people like Roberts who are now dealing with the after-effects of the attack -- an event that both challenged our belief that life is predictable and that Canada is relatively immune from such horrors.
Bonnie Burstow is an associate professor at the University of Toronto where she teaches a course on working with survivors of trauma. The timing of the attack, Burstow says, can make it particularly distressing.
“The fact that this happened in the afternoon is bad for trauma because they couldn't say, ‘This happened at night, and as long as I don't go out at night…’ This happened in the broad daylight,” she told CTV News.
Reactions to trauma, experts say, can range from confusion to shock. Later, they say, comes extended grief.
“And it may take weeks, months,” Toronto-based grief and trauma councillor Karen Letofsky told CP24. “For some people, it may kick in when there’s another traumatic event in their life.”
“One of the things they can do… is be around people who care, who will listen to them as they talk about how they feel about it,” Burstow added.
And that’s exactly what Roberts is now doing on her journey to recovery.
“I just keep talking about it, hoping that that helps alleviate some of the stress in my brain so that my body will relax,” Roberts said.
Victim Services Toronto is urging anyone needing support after the tragedy to contact them at 416-808-7066. The charity offers crisis support free of charge. What’s Up Walk-In also offers free walk-in mental health counselling from six Toronto locations.
“Community safety is not just a matter of saving lives -- it’s also a matter of wellbeing,” Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t want people walking away thinking, ‘I need help but I can’t afford it,’ or, ‘I need help, but I wasn’t part of this investigation.’ Or, if you have a friend that may have witnessed it but has nowhere to go, if that friend can contact that person and at least start a process, it will be of great benefit to us as a whole, as a community.”
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip
We want to remind all those affected by yesterday's tragedy that our services are here for you whenever you need us. Whether you are a survivor, a witness, or a loved one of someone affected, you can call (416) 808-7066 to get support. pic.twitter.com/zrwmXwMqad— Victim Services (@VSToronto) April 24, 2018