How to cope with a traumatic event in school, according to a professional counsellor in S'pore

Traumatic incidents, like the recent alleged murder of a River Valley High School student on campus, can be very difficult for students and teachers. A professional counsellor shares ways to cope with it.

Joshua Lee | Alfie Kwa | July 20, 2021, 08:55 PM

On July 19, a Secondary One River Valley High student passed away after he was subjected to a violent assault by a fellow student in school.

Following incidents like these, how can teachers and students cope after going through a violent incident in school, and how can those affected deal with the trauma?

We talked to Vinti Mittal, Clinical Director at SACAC Counselling, to understand more.

Q: What are some typical responses to a traumatic incident?

After a traumatic incident, students or staff may experience “powerful and unusual” reactions that are part of the body's survival mechanisms, said Vinti.

These reactions include intense fear, nightmares, helplessness, horror, mood swings, flashbacks, anxiety, a heightened sense of danger, and feeling out of control. Some may even feel fear that the event will recur.

A traumatic incident can cause “powerful and unusual” reactions like mood swings and anxiety. Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash.

However, these symptoms aren’t permanent, she assured, and will disappear within a few days or weeks. Most people will be able to work through their reactions by following their usual routines and being supported by family and friends.

“Only a small percentage of people with a history of trauma show impairment and symptoms that meet the criteria for trauma-related stress disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders,” Vinti added.

Q: How should trauma be processed?

Psychoeducation plays an important role for students and staff to not only understand reactions to trauma, but also learn how to develop a healthy response and know when to seek support, said Vinti.

She provided the following tips for dealing with trauma:

1. Don't feel pressured to share the experience until you’re ready.

Pushing people to share prematurely will force them to relive the trauma all over again.

2. Take as much rest as possible and be gentle with yourself.

3. Return to your usual routine.

A routine provides structure and will help to minimise anxiety.

4. Practice stress reduction and relaxation techniques

These include deep breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, and meditation. Other stress reduction activities include physical activities, playing music, or reading.

Exercise can help to reduce the stress from encountering a traumatic event. Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash.

Q: How can teachers and students cope with a murder in school?

When a murder occurs in school, people who are affected include parents, teachers, and students. Different people have different ways of coping with traumatic events.

Vinti said that as a general rule, people should be encouraged to talk — if they want to.

Schools should devise a plan for handling the reactions and feelings of people affected.

While family members and friends of the victim(s) may wish to have some privacy, Vinti said that the school has a duty of care to children and staff of the school.

“It is important to gently explain this to families and work out an agreed way forward so that children, staff, and parents don’t hear [about it] on the playground, at the school gate, through social media. At all times aim to be as open as possible.”

Teachers, in particular, play an essential role in supporting the emotional health and well-being of their school community and in maintaining control of the situation in the school, said Vinti.

Since teachers are the first point of contact with students, they are able to identify vulnerable “at risk” pupils after the incident, such as those who are negatively affected.

Q: Should students be given professional counselling?

Vinti suggested that an affected school can consider using outside professionals to support and debrief affected staff and pupils.

She also pointed out that staff are especially important in a crisis and must be monitored for signs of weariness.

“If a crisis persists over many hours, staff can become tired, weary and upset and this affects their powers to make sensible decisions. It may be appropriate to hold a debriefing opportunity for staff and parents to clarify what has happened and allow for sharing reactions.”

Q: How can students deal with the anxiety of returning to school?

According to Vinti, an affected school has to have a plan before inviting students back on campus because of the anxiety that they may have.

Typically, a school might follow a “three-pronged itinerary”:

  1. A short school closure
  2. A memorial event to welcome back students and their families,
  3. Beef up security measures and install new systems to prevent future incidents

“Additionally, there may be an open invitation for students to receive therapy support if they want to process the incident further with any professional counsellors,” she said.

On July 20, education minister Chan Chun Sing announced that the Ministry of Education has set up a CARE post at River Valley High School so that students will have access to MOE and school counsellors who are trained in trauma management.

Top photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash