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'It's OK to not be OK': Tornado survivors offered help to deal with trauma

'We know people heal best when they have connections and relationships,' says local pediatrician Dr. Rob Meeder

It’s been just over one week since an EF2 tornado hit a southeast Barrie neighbourhood, and while the majority of the debris has been cleaned up and work is well underway on repairs, the impact felt by those who experienced it will stick with them much longer.

More than 100 people from around the tornado-affected area came out to St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic School last night to participate in an event jointly hosted by the city, the Simcoe County District School Board and the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board called Healing After Trauma: Regaining Your Mental Health After A Disaster. It offered families the chance to connect with staff and counsellors from several different local mental health agencies.

Dr. Rob Meeder, who is a pediatrician at the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, told BarrieToday when an event like the July 15 tornado happens, many homes and families are affected. And when it comes on the heels of an 18 month-long pandemic, it can be even harder.

“I happened to be in the area volunteering shortly after… and when you start hearing all the stories, you realize that people were really traumatized by this event," Meeder said. "When that happens, it’s really important to get involved from a mental health perspective. A lot of the physical stuff, the damage and the physical injuries will all heal and get cleaned up, but the mental health impacts last a lot longer.”

Meeder says while his job typically focuses more on children and family, he acknowledged that adults can also suffer from post-traumatic stress from this type of disaster.

The motivation for last night's event was to provide education and awareness that mental health can be impacted by this, as well as letting people know what services and resources are available to help them in order to help them heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.

Mental health is important all the time, but especially following a traumatic event, Meeder added.

“One of the most important factors when it comes to something like this happening is for a community to come together. We know people heal best when they have connections and relationships. That is why an event like this, with other organizations involved … that is (all) going to all be part of the process,” he said.

Meeder also explained that it’s important to be aware of the many different ways children may process such an experience.

“We need to respect where (kids) are developmentally. We also need to respect that they need to process this at their own pace. Telling a kid to get it all out is probably not going to be helpful  some kids will be more ready than others and kids will all respond in different ways,” he said.

“This is a huge stressor and we are going to see a lot of what we call stress behaviour. To us adults, that may look like misbehaviour and we have to be careful because it can come out in different ways," he added. "The younger you are, the more difficult it is to express your feelings… and as parents, educators and people who are involved with kids, we need to be aware.”

Coun. Jim Harris, who helped organize last night’s event, told BarrieToday he wanted to use his connections in the mental health services field to help the community. 

“I am a born and raised Barrie kid, and I lived through the 1985 tornado. I had family and friends who were impacted,” he said, adding outside of his role with the city, he works at New Path Youth & Family Services.

“As we look around the community, people are helping where they can. For some, it’s donating food and supplies, and for me, it was the ability to gather together colleagues from the mental health services to offer an important event to help people manage the mental health impact of this event," Harris added. 

A tornado is an exceptional and relatively rare event, but with them comes great devastation, he said. 

“We see the impact on physical structures, cars turned over… and we can replace those things, but there are emotional and psychological components that last that we don’t see. That is an important part of the healing and recovery process," Harris said. "Our society has moved a lot more forward with understanding mental health and well being as being part of our complete health and well being.

“I hope people take away from this that it is OK not to be OK.”

Amanda Fellows, program manager for community development at Catholic Family Services of Simcoe County, echoed that sentiment.

“As an agency, we feel pretty privileged to be part of the conversation in supporting people and healing after a disaster. We are hoping people will know there are mental health resources and help navigate some of the trauma they’ve experienced," she said. "We know when people experience traumatic events like this there can be a ripple effect and they can often start experiencing things like anxiety and depression.

“Just like we put emphasis on repairing our house and taking care of our physical needs like getting food, we also need to put emphasis on our mental health and the support that we need," Fellows added. "The reality is people have been through a trauma (and) responses to that may be very different. Some people have coping strategies and some people don’t. Sometimes we need support navigating those big pieces that come up when we experience something like that.”

Barrie’s July 15 tornado reached wind speeds of 210 kilometres an hour, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), and had a damage track about 12 kilometres long and a maximum path width of 600 metres. 

Just after 2:30 p.m., that day, the tornado tracked from the miniature golf course on Huronia Road and Mapleview Drive and continued east toward Prince William Way, where it caused significant damage on the north side of Mapleview,  and then went beyond the Prince William Way subdivision, according to ECCC.

Ten people were treated at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) for injuries suffered during the storm, which also caused structural, tree and vehicle damage and dozens of homes are deemed uninhabitable. All 10 people have since been released from hospital and are recovering.

About the Author: Nikki Cole

Nikki Cole has been a community issues reporter for BarrieToday since February, 2021
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