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The Opportunity To Heal

Newtown’s congressional representatives announced ten days ago that the town had secured another federal grant — this one $7.1 million from the Department of Justice — for mental health services and school safety measures. It is the latest infusion of money from the government in the wake of the December 2012 tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. It follows earlier grants from the Office for Victims of Crime and the US Department of Education’s School Emergency Response to Violence program totaling $4.7 million. No one was prepared for the local horror of 12/14, and nothing seems to impel the flow of federal money like after-the-fact “precautions” in the wake of profound tragedy.

Trauma psychologist Kevin Becker has highlighted what he calls “that heroic period” of the first weeks and months following 12/14 when help poured into Newtown, and community cohesion and mutual support flourished. At his talk here last month at the extraordinary “Day of Shared Experience” — which also included people from the stricken communities of Nickel Mines, Columbine, and Virginia Tech — Dr Becker noted that as time passes, disillusionment can set in when the pervasive negative psychological impacts of trauma persist in the community, often in the form of perceived threats. The tide of money that has come Newtown’s way is intended, in large part, to address those threats not just by giving the community the sense of being prepared, but by giving us the infrastructure of programs, services, and facilities that actually make us prepared to meet those threats.

The post-12/14 legislative task force charged with examining mental health issues among young adults released its recommendations June 17, including several proposals to bolster the scope and range of mental health services available in Connecticut’s schools. Notwithstanding the bipartisan fanfare that accompanied the release of these recommendations, it is not clear whether the legislature will follow up with the funding to implement any of these proposals. Yet, thanks to this new round of federal grants, Newtown now has the option to move forward independently with plans to lay the foundations of long-term resiliency for the community.

True resiliency, however, is not a function of money but of people. The so-called “ripple effect” of trauma, according to Dr Becker, touches everyone in a town like Newtown. (The Department of Justice has designated the entire town as victims of 12/14.) Consequently, questions are bound to arise about the relative needs of people in the different hierarchies of the direct and indirect impacts of 12/14. Making too much of these distinctions, Dr Becker notes, risks “faction infection,” adding that “there are many components to a community, and you mustn’t forget anyone in the recovery process.” Maintaining the cohesiveness of Newtown is key. “Time doesn’t heal,” he cautioned. “Time gives you the opportunity to heal.”

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