Yesterday was a day of national mourning in Belgium because of a tragic bus accident in Switzerland on Tuesday night. A bus with primary school children and their teachers, returning from a ski trip, had crashed into a tunnel wall near Sion. It caused the loss of 22 children and six adults. All other occupants (24 children) were injured.
It feels needless to say that this accident has a dramatic impact on the Belgian community, including the survivors, their families, their classmates, teachers, neighbors, involved professionals, and fellow citizens. The contrast between the children’s cheerful experiences during a week of skiing and the sudden devastation of lives couldn’t be more pronounced.
Erik de Soir, a Belgian crisis psychologist, provided support to the parents and teachers of the children from the moment the news reached one of the two schools involved. In an interview on the Dutch television on Thursday, he told about his experiences and the strategies for psychological support in the direct aftermath of mass trauma, in line with the current scientific evidence. I was very impressed with the genuine way he described his work and his views.
A few points made in the interview:
When the parents arrived at the school early Wednesday morning (only knowing that an accident had happened), the priority was to provide parents with as much correct information as possible and to organise their departure to Switzerland. The priority was not to have in-depth conversations about emotions.
He also helped out at the school with explaining what had happened to the children who did not go on the trip. The most important points he made about informing youngsters about a tragic event, were:
- Be honest about what has happened,
- Don’t say that everything will be allright
- Adapt your language to the child’s level of understanding.
Furthermore, he stressed the importance of keeping the school running during the following days. Otherwise children, parents and teachers would be alone with their grief (and without their daily routine).
These blogposts give tips about how to help children, parents, and others in the aftermath of a serious event as well as online resources with further information. Some specific Belgian resources are mentioned in the post on the shooting in Liège.
If you want to read more about the scientific background of psychological first aid, have a look at the articles by Hobfall et al (2007) and Watson et al (2011):
Hobfoll, S., Watson, P., Bell, C., Bryant, R., Brymer, M., Friedman, M., Friedman, M., Gersons, B., de Jong, J., Layne, C., Maguen, S., Neria, Y., Norwood, A., Pynoos, R., Reissman, D., Ruzek, J., Shalev, A., Solomon, Z., Steinberg, A., & Ursano, R. (2007). Five Essential Elements of Immediate and Mid–Term Mass Trauma Intervention: Empirical Evidence Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 70 (4), 283-315 DOI: 10.1521/psyc.2007.70.4.283
Watson, P., Brymer, M., & Bonanno, G. (2011). Postdisaster psychological intervention since 9/11. American Psychologist, 66 (6), 482-494 DOI: 10.1037/a0024806