Connecting

It’s not often you get to enjoy the company of one of the world’s great minds in the area of Post Traumatic Stress. Yesterday I, and many of my colleagues, were able to revel in 3hours of post traumatic stress heaven (if there is such a thing), with Dr Patricia Watson, one of the gurus and key drivers behind the 5 pillars of psycho-social support. Patricia is with the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress in the US, amongst other appointments. To add to the heavenly mix, Professor David Forbes, from Phoenix Australia, and the legendary Rob Gordon, took part in a panel facilitated by my boss, Andrew Coghlan. There was probably a close to couple of hundred years of experience, and the high power on the stage could have probably powered a small city.

Patricia’s presentation was called Talking Points, which I think is code for talk about whatever you want to talk about. Over an hour, she was wide ranging; context, risk factors (Eeyore), impacts, helpful strategies, clinical vs non clinic, the power of the people and community networks, trajectories, positives and negatives.

What I thought was fabulous was her ability to connect the sky with the ground. In a very unassuming and gentle manner, she extracted study after study on trauma and disaster, and presented just what you needed to know in a clear and engaging manner. She then would punctuate the study with an anecdote here, or a bit of humour there. My colleague Shona also warned me that she is delightful, which she is, as I found out chatting to her later on. And she displayed the greatest skill, I think in a communicator of complex information, self-depreciation.

There was so much information, but some of the key things for me (this time around) were her points on we speak about trauma being a “normal reaction to an abnormal situation”, when people are saying, hang on this doesn’t feel too normal to me, so she suggested a subtle change “common reaction”

Recognising that we when talk about reactions, we only talk about the negative, and not the positive, that people might also be having positive feelings and reactions (I feel so focused at the moment), and we needed to recognise the spectrum of emotions. This will be great news to my colleagues Rhonda Abotomey and Lou Harms.

Recovery is a 7-10 process, I think I saw the government people in the room shudder when she said that. But as Dave Forbes said, it might not mean funding for 7-10 years, but a plan needs to be in place to ensure local services have the capability and capacity to deal with people’s issues for this period. This lines up with the research that we have been doing post Black Saturday, as we’ve shown there is still significant distress after five years.

She said we needed to have a humility about the complexity of disaster, not apologise for it, and not think we know everything, as every disaster is different, and everyone’s reactions are different

One of my favourite bits was her use of a beautiful de Saint-Exupery quote

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea
To highlight focus less on the tasks, and problem solving, and more on what you want to achieve, what will people’s story, their narrative, be at the end of recovery.

There was so much in her presentation, I can’t wait for the movie to come out (it was filmed). Sad, I know. John Bates, the Director of the Australian Institute of Disaster Resilience, and co-sponsor (with Red Cross) of Patricia’s visit, said to me afterwards, this is the second one of her talks I have seen, and I learnt so much more again.

Later on, at the Disaster Drinks (a regular little gathering we established to bring disasters practitioners, policy people and researchers together for a chat) I was reflecting how much deeper we are diving into understanding these complexities, and how many more people are involved and interested, from a wide spectrum of agencies and disciplines). There were around 100 people at Patricia’s talk. 20 years ago, when I started in the field, there would have been lucky to be 10, and they all would have been “touchy-feely” types. We have come a long, long way.

One of the most telling snippets from Patricia was when she said that people aren’t going to remember what you said, they will remember how you made them feel. This made me think of the way that two young women’s faces lit up when I checked in on their workplace in Bourke St a couple of weeks after my colleague Shona and I ran a Looking After Yourself session with them, after their very traumatic experience. It was clear it was not the information, but the connection, that resonated with them.  And that is what it is all about. Connecting.

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