Mental health support key to picking up pieces, says Fond-du-Lac chief

Fond-du-Lac residents will need mental health supports to deal with trauma of plane crash, says Chief Louie Mercredi.

Five mental health therapists sent out to help survivors and those impacted

"Everyone was screaming we're stuck," remembered the lone flight attendant aboard West Winds Aviation's flight 280. It crashed on December 13, 2017, almost immediately after takeoff. Transportation Safety Board investigators later took this photo of the wreckage. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

The aftermath of a plane crash is highlighting the need for mental health support in the isolated community of Fond-du-Lac, according to Chief Louie Mercredi.

There were 25 people on board when the plane came down shortly after take-off, on the evening of Dec. 13. No one was killed, but some serious injuries were reported, and Mercredi points out there are other impacts that may not be seen on the surface. 

"I know for sure the whole community was shocked, traumatized," he said. "There's lot of medical attention that they require, mentally and physically."

Fond-du-Lac has a doctor that visits on a weekly basis and a mental health therapist, but Mercredi said that one therapist would not be enough to serve 1,000 people that felt the trauma of the crash. 

After the chief travelled south to take part in an interagency meeting, five mental health therapists were brought in to respond to the community's needs.

What happens after trauma

The reactions of people to a traumatic incident can widely vary, according to Margaret McKinnon, Homewood chair of mental health and trauma at McMaster University. Some may react with nervousness, anxiety or tension, but some others may become numbed out and have trouble connecting with their loved ones.

Based on research, McKinnon said that two-thirds of survivors will develop a more aroused or "hyper-vigilant" response in the first weeks or months following a disaster. While many come to a form of resolution with the incident, eight to 10 per cent of people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

It's not a time to turn away from those you're close to, but rather a time to reach in, and connect with those around you.- Margaret McKinnon, McMaster University

Having access to mental health care is important in helping people cope, but McKinnon said the best predictor of who may develop PTSD is whether or not they have social support.

"It's not a time to turn away from those you're close to, but rather a time to reach in, and connect with those around you."

'On the right track by getting together' 

People should respect the way that their loved ones process trauma, says McKinnon. Some may want to talk about the experience, while others may not. For those who would prefer not to discuss the incident itself, she suggests it may still be helpful for them to talk about their reactions.

"If they're able to talk together spend time together, discuss their reactions and their responses, that can be much more helpful than having the event occur in isolation, when you don't have that community support."

Mercredi also feels that Fond-du-Lac residents will need to be able to lean on — and support — one another, through the coming days and weeks.

"I know we're not going to get over it 100 per cent, but we'll be on the right track by getting together and working together," he said.