May 8, 1998

VUMC team of counselors help twister victims cope

VUMC team of counselors help twister victims cope

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Downed trees still litter East Park in from of Warner School in East Nashville. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

Kathy Gracey knows what it used to look like around Warner School: the green grass of East Park, across the street; the stately Victorian houses of Historic Edgefield in the surrounding neighborhood; and the trees. Especially the trees, hundreds of them, some of them a hundred years old.

Gracey also knows what the area around Warner School looks like now: East Park, where children from the school would play after classes, is a wasteland of stumps; many of the neighborhood houses are damaged or destroyed; and the beautiful green trees that have shaded generations of students and their parents are gone.

Gracey, the coordinator of school-based couseling services at Vanderbilt University Medical Center¹s Community Mental Health Center, a part of the department of Psychiatry, knows something else about the damages caused by tornadoes ‹ some of it is inside the victims.

She said walking down the hallways at Warner School, she was struck by the student artwork posted on bulletin boards. Drawings by children show angry swirling winds knocking down houses and carrying people away ‹ a representation in crayon of the emotional storm within.

Helping the people who lived through the tornado deal with the sometimes overwhelming emotions that have resulted has been the goal of about 20 VUMC mental health clinicians who have been working with the Nashville American Red Cross through their Coalition for Mental Health Disaster Relief. The effort was spearheaded by Carol Etherington, a lecturer in Nursing who is no stranger to devestation, having made several trips to Bosnia. The mobilization of the clinicians at the Vanderbilt Community Mental Health Center was handled by Tom Catron, Ph. D., the center¹s executive director, who also coordinated the disaster relief effort for Metro schools.

Clinicians from the Mental Health Center are familiar people in several of the schools hardest hit by the tornado ‹ the center has mental health clinics in eight schools, including Warner, Park Avenue, Lockeland, and Rosebank.

"These schools are really stressed," Gracey said. "It¹s hard to concentrate and focus when you¹ve been through such a traumatic event. We¹re inviting people to come in and share their stories."

Gracey said common symptoms exhibited by victims can include bad dreams, sleeplessness, depression, gastrointestinal upset, confusion, sadness, frustration, and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

The day Warner reopened, Gracey and four other Vanderbilt counselors spent the whole day in group sessions with adults, so that teachers could then go back to their classrooms and debrief the children.

"You go in and share information," Gracey said. "What the response to disaster might be, what might come up later, the effects on children, what the adults can do, and what community resources are available.

"Then we give them time to share their stories, if they choose to. The more you tell your story, the more you get out and the less you¹re holding in. We end with what to do if it doesn¹t get better, and we hand out referral sheets."

Speaking with so many victims can even take a toll on the people doing it.

"I had to be debriefed myself," Gracey said. "What¹s kept me rolling is that these people need it so bad. These adults and kids need to talk about this."