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Network offers free therapy for trauma linked to bombings

  • Injured people and debris lie on the sidewalk near the Boston Marathon finish line following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP Photo/MetroWest Daily News, Ken McGagh)  MANDATORY CREDIT

    Injured people and debris lie on the sidewalk near the Boston Marathon finish line following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP Photo/MetroWest Daily News, Ken McGagh) MANDATORY CREDIT Purchase photo reprints »

  • Injured people and debris lie on the sidewalk near the Boston Marathon finish line following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP Photo/MetroWest Daily News, Ken McGagh)  MANDATORY CREDIT

The violence may have taken place in Boston, but many people in western Massachusetts are affected by explosions that blasted through a crowd near the iconic Boston Marathon’s finish line Monday. Local therapists are reaching out to area people overcome by the tragedy to provide them with free therapy.

Amy Khan, co-coordinator of the Western Massachusetts Trauma Recovery Network, said the network of 18 therapists, all of whom have received training in disaster and trauma counseling, are available to meet with Pioneer Valley residents reeling from the Patriots Day explosions at Copley Square.

She said people in need of aid could be marathon runners, volunteers and spectators as well as people who saw the tragedy unfold on the news. Kahn said getting therapy now reduces the chances of developing post traumatic stress disorder or having to cope with acute stress longterm.

“People who get help within the first three months can alleviate the symptoms of acute stress,” said Khan, a Northampton clinical psychologist in private practice. “We want to get the word out that we’re here to help.”

The trauma recovery network is offering up to five free sessions with a licensed therapist. To get in touch with a therapist call Khan at 687-2314 or network co-coordinator Nancy Simons, a licensed mental health care provider in Leverett, at 549-4854. Callers will take part in a brief interview with Khan or Simons to asses whether more serious treatment than what the network plans to offer is necessary. Within 48 hours, the caller will be connected with a local therapist, Khan said.

Khan said some of the signs that someone may need to see a therapist to overcome emotions rattled by the Boston Marathon explosions include: difficulty sleeping, excessive worry, intrusive thoughts, being quick to startle and higher-than-normal levels of irritability and anger.

If someone is having a hard time dealing with grief or stress caused by the disaster and want to do some “self-care,” Khan suggests “trying to have a routine or living a normal life.” That means eating well, staying away from stressful situations and exercising.

“After a trauma, the body is so agitated a good vigorous walk is very helpful,” she said.

Free sessions offered by the network will focus on dealing with feelings that have welled up following the marathon and therapists will use a form of treatment called EMDR therapy.

The treatment is a combination of talk therapy and evocation of REM sleep. Although there is no sleep involved in the sessions, therapists work with patients to get in touch with the sort of healing that occurs during the sleep cycle. EMDR therapy is used by the Department of Defense and the World Health Organization to treat trauma-related symptoms, Kahn said.

This therapy method has been used by the local trauma recovery network before when the group offered free services following the 2009 arsons in Northampton, Hurricane Irene and the 2011 tornado. “You’re working at a much deeper level,” said Khan of the EMDR therapy, a method she’s used for 15 of her 35 years as a psychologist.

Laurie Bishop, of Easthampton, took advantage of the free counseling offered by the trauma recovery network following Hurricane Irene. Bishop was vacationing on the Outer Banks, an island group off North Carolina, when the hurricane was making its way up the coast.

At the same time the Great Dismal Swamp Fire was still raging (it burned for 111 days) and an earthquake had rocked nearby Virginia just a few days into her vacation. Along with everyone else on the islands, she was evacuated while the air was whipping and the ocean waters were surging.

Flying back home was difficult. The lines at the airport were long and bad weather in Philadelphia was canceling flights into New England, she said.

“It felt like this hurricane was just coming to get us,” Bishop said. That experience, plus being visited by the hurricane again in Massachusetts, left Bishop in a state of high anxiety.

“I was ready to try anything because my anxiety level was so high that any impending storm made me very anxious. It could be a windy day out and I would be just really on edge,” she said.

That’s when Bishop saw an ad in the paper advertising the network’s free therapy services. Bishop called, went through the process and said it helped her immensely.

“That helped relieve a lot of my anxiety, which was really good, being able to talk about what happened helped. It was very effective,” she said.

Bishop isn’t totally cured of her anxiety. An avid kayaker, she hasn’t brought her vessel on the water since the hurricane.

“I still have a little issue with water because there was just so much rushing water everywhere, it still makes me a little nervous,” she said, “but I am so much better now.”

The Western Massachusetts Trauma Recovery Network was founded eight years ago after local therapists who volunteered to counsel people in the South suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. When they returned, many of the therapists noted that having a ready-to-go team of specialists that can be deployed locally following a tragedy would be a boon to the Pioneer Valley. About three times a year, the network therapists receive training in how to treat people suffering from trauma, Khan said. “We thought this would be a really good way to give back to the community,” Khan said.

Kristin Palpini can be contacted at kpalpini@gazettenet.com.

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