Nova Scotia

'Not alone in this': How to access grief support in Nova Scotia

Grief support is available for Nova Scotians online and over the phone as they mourn those killed in a gunman's rampage over the weekend.

Counselling offered over the phone, through video conferencing due to COVID-19

A memorial was set up at the Enfield RCMP detachment. The Nova Scotia Health Authority is offering mental health support by phone and online. (Robert Short/CBC)

Even though COVID-19 has forced families and friends to physically separate, grief specialists are urging people to come together virtually as they mourn the deaths of those killed in a gunman's rampage on the weekend.

An elementary school teacher, two health-care workers, a family of three and an RCMP officer have been identified as among the 22 victims who died in one of the worst mass killings in Canadian history.

"We're working hard behind the scenes to become very responsive and moving forward with planning to allow community members to know that they're not alone in this," Serena Lewis, a bereavement, grief and wellness co-ordinator with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, told CBC's Maritime Noon.

The health authority has rolled out mental health services that can be accessed online, including interactive programs for people experiencing anxiety and other mental health challenges. 

Mental health and addictions clinicians can also meet with people over the phone, through secure video-conferencing and in person if an individual's needs require it, the health authority said. 

Lewis lives in Great Village, N.S., not far from where events began in Portapique, and was in lockdown as the gunman made his way to several communities.

She said grief comes in many forms, and encouraged people to check in with their neighbours by text or phone.

She added that support will be available "for the long haul."

"This is not just going to be something that people are processing for the next couple of days or weeks," she said.

Premier Stephen McNeil said Monday that the tragedy will compound the grief many people are already experiencing due to COVID-19.

"It's all the more reason why we need to find a way to reach out to one another," McNeil told CBC's Information Morning.

Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, said it remains important that people limit gatherings to no more than five people, and to maintain physical distancing when they do gather.

Support for students, teachers 

Even though schools remain closed, the Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education said help is available for students and staff who are grieving.

One of the victims, Lisa McCully, was a teacher at Debert Elementary and is being remembered by her colleagues and students as someone "who taught from the heart."

Members of the regional centre's crisis response team will be able to help students with one-on-one phone calls, conference calls and secure video conferencing.

Teachers also have "practical age appropriate strategies to support their students as they connect virtually online or over the phone," the regional centre for education said in a statement.

Lewis said it's important to be honest with children and to answer questions they have.

Stan Kutcher, a former director of the World Health Organization's Collaborating Centre in Mental Health Policy, says it's important for children to feel safe, validated and reassured during these difficult and uncertain times. Those who need someone to talk with can call the province's toll-free Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-429-8167 and the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. 16:00

"Right now, I think it's important that we're really building that sense of safety and just reassuring kids that this is over and we're going to work through this together," she said.

Stan Kutcher, a senator and professor emeritus of psychiatry at Dalhousie University, said coping with a tragedy of this magnitude is made harder when people aren't able to physically comfort one another.

He encouraged those who can to hold their loved ones close.

"It's the physical hugging that's the balm, the salve that helps to start to soothe the soul," he told CBC's Mainstreet.

Kutcher also urged kids and teenagers who don't have someone at home to talk with to contact a relative or another adult in their life.

A condolence message was put up in Portapique, N.S., over the weekend. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Stacey Harrison, the executive director of the Colchester East Hants Hospice Society, said virtual grief services will evolve over time as the details of what happened emerge.

The society has a team of five staff, including two social workers.

"We're privileged to have a social worker that has experience in children and youth grief and bereavement, and she is on staff and we are preparing resources that we will share virtually on social media platforms that people can share," Harrison told CBC's Information Morning.

She encouraged people to use social media to share stories, memories and photos of the victims.

Who to contact for help

People can contact the Colchester East Hants Hospice Society by email at questions@cehhospice.org or by phone at 902-893-3265.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority's new online mental health services can be accessed here.

People who are looking for support are encouraged to call their local clinic, the Mental Health and Addictions intake line at 1-855-922-1122 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays or the crisis line. 

The province's toll-free Mental Health Crisis Line is 1-888-429-8167 and available 24 hours, seven days a week. People can also contact the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 anytime of day.

If you're experiencing an emergency, call 911. 

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With files from CBC's Information Morning, Maritime Noon and Mainstreet

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