How Quebec City is mending the emotional scars left after the mosque attack

In the week following the deadly attack on a mosque in Quebec City, counsellors and social workers have been deployed across the city to help people affected deal with the shock and trauma of the event.

In wake of the shooting, children, family members, first responders offered counselling

Grade 4 students at Notre-Dame-De-Foy elementary school pray outside after posting messages of support for the victims of the mosque shooting. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Three days after the deadly attack at a Quebec City mosque, Saïd Akjour sat at his kitchen table with a bandage over his left shoulder and spoke to CBC about being shot while inside the mosque on the night of the attack.

He was convinced he would die.

But when Akjour spoke about the first responders he began to tear up.

"To see how they acted, quickly and well. From the police officers inside the mosque, the paramedics," Akjour said, his voice trailing off. 

"They did it with vocation," adding that a nurse, who had just finished her shift, even came back to see how he was doing.

Akjour as well as first responders and medical personnel are among those who have been offered psychological help this week to help heal the scars left behind by the attack.

Said Akjour was shot in the shoulder Sunday night at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

In the wake of the shooting a temporary centre was set up at the Jeffrey Hale Hospital to connect people who might need help to specialists working directly on site or in the community.

Josée Martel is assistant director of psychological services with the regional health agency for the Quebec City region. 

Forty-eight hours after the attack, she said trained professionals including social workers were dispatched to the scene and hospital rooms to speak to family members and survivors.

In the days following, they have worked with the city to identify those who were left bereaved or traumatized by the attack to offer them support, including some home visits. 

Counsellors were also dispatched to schools and authorities are telling anyone seeking psychological or social support to call 811 for help.

A young girl places a flower next to one of the caskets during a ceremony for three of the six victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

School system dealing directly with affected children

Seventeen children lost their fathers that night, many of them students at Quebec City schools. Several students also witnessed the attack at the mosque.

At École Versant-Notre-Dame-de-Foy, just steps away from the mosque, 40 per cent of the students are Muslim. None of the students at the school lost a parent, but many who live close by heard gunfire.

"We have many refugees here in our school," Josée Bélanger a counsellor with the school, said.

"They found refuge here in Quebec and Canada, often to flee from violence."

Bélanger said counsellors spoke with roughly 30 students.

"They told us that gunfire was the kind of thing they use to hear in their home countries."

Children at the Notre-Dame-De-Foy school made a monument for the victims of Sunday's shooting at a Quebec City mosque. The school is located near the Centre culturel islamique de Québec where Sunday night's shooting took place. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Finding the right words to say 

Annik De Celles is an English teacher at the private Catholic school Séminaire des Pères Maristes.

Dozens of Muslim students attend the school, including the son of Azzeddine Soufiane, one of the six men killed in the mosque attack. 

De Celles said the school's principal met each Muslim student individually with a counsellor.

Counsellors also visited classrooms to encourage the students to talk and discuss their feelings.

"Some of them were extremely angry, because either their own parents were there or knew somebody that was there."

De Celles said the students wanted to talk, and it was important to have a specialist on site.

"I think it was important for them to have an outlet, not just on the social media to talk between each other, but to talk out loud about it," she said.

It was also important, De Celles said, to talk to the students about the words to use.

"Sometimes they want to make jokes, they're insecure, they're nervous about the situation so things don't come out the right way, so we have to help them through that, help them be respectful, and know what to say and how to say it."

De Celles said teachers are encouraging students to put themselves in the shoes of the young man who lost his father. 

"We told them to be respectful about his grieving time and he's going to deal with it, and to just be there for him if he needs them."

Ilies Soufiane, 15-year-old son of victim Azzeddine Soufiane, is consoled during a ceremony for three of the six victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting Friday in Quebec City. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Shock is processed in stages: trauma psychologist

Jean-Bernard Pocreau is a psychologist with the regional health agency who specializes in trauma and is responsible for specialized services for immigrants and refugees.

In the days following the attack he met with the families of victims, witnesses of the attack as well as first responders and medical personnel who treated the injured.

He said in the first 72 hours it is normal to react to shock in several ways. 

"Reactions of anxiety, reactions of fear, of insecurity where the threat feels like it is everywhere."

Some people also feel intense emotion such as being stunned or excited, he said.

In the weeks following the shooting, the emotions will subside and for some disappear. Bernard said it is after a month that professionals can start to see if someone is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. 
Quebec City police on the scene of the Islamic cultural centre of Quebec in the Sainte-Foy neighbourhood the night of the shooting. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

Even though many symptoms disappear or subside, they can resurface weeks, months, even years later. 

Bernard said people express their feelings best in their first language, and several interpreters have been made available to help anyone communicate with a counsellor or a psychologist. 

He said many people have been touched by the events to various degrees, and while many of the symptoms people might be experiencing will eventually diminish, it will be important to pay attention over the course of the next months.

"The shock wave touched the people affected directly, the witnesses, but also the the community of the city of Quebec."

With files from Marika Wheeler, Catou MacKinnon, Quebec AM and Radio-Canada