Coping with the psychological aftermath of the Argenta explosion

Experts say be there for colleagues and students; understand everyone will process Friday's explosion in different ways


7/11/2019 | By: John Trent |

The explosion that damaged Argenta and Nye Halls on Friday, July 5 will continue to have an effect on the people of the campus for a long time to come.

Eight people were injured. More than 200 students staying in Argenta this summer needed to be relocated to Peavine Hall. The staff of Human Resources, located in the Artemesia Building directly across Artemesia Way from Argenta, has worked remotely due to minor damage and safety concerns for their building. The members of Student Services and Police Services have worked around the clock since the explosion to keep the people of the University safe, and to meet the needs of the students who have been displaced.

And that's just a sampling of how the campus' psychological well-being has been impacted since the blast occurred on Friday.

According to Jacqueline Pistorello, Ph.D., director of the University's Counseling Services, perhaps the most important thing colleagues, fellow students and friends of those affected can do is to understand that every individual is different. We all process harrowing events like Friday's blast in different ways.

"It makes things trickier, but it's essential to remember that everyone copes with things differently," Pistorello said. "With events like this, we've learned over the years to allow people to cope in ways that they know work for them. Some may want to return to the comfort of their daily routines immediately. Some may want to sit down and talk about how they are feeling. All of that is OK. The research shows that mandating people to debrief feelings right away can be a harmful thing to do."

Instead, Pistorello said, the emphasis needs to be on patience, openness, and understanding.

"Don't make the discussions mandatory," she said. "Say, ‘I'm here to talk if you need to talk.' Sometimes instead of a 'sit down talk,' people might be more comfortable going for a walk, or going to lunch-engaging in an activity together. Sometimes people need time to process things before they are ready to talk, and that's why it's often important to take that middle path-acknowledging the pain and the loss and also giving people the space to process things at their own pace."

Counseling Services has been on the ground, working with the students and staff affected, soon after the explosion occurred. Vice President for Student Services Shannon Ellis noted in a Tuesday press conference on campus that counselors have been on site at Peavine Hall to help students with their psychological needs. Group and individual debriefing counseling has been ongoing, Pistorello said.

"We're making progress," Pistorello said. "We're having a lot of groups set up. And we're finding that now that it's been a few days since the event happened, there are more students coming in, and that's expected. We found that also happened after the Las Vegas shooting (the Oct. 1, 2017 Route 91 musical festival shooting in Las Vegas, in which 58 people were killed and more than 400 more wounded; a number of students on campus are from Las Vegas and Clark County). The people who were impacted often didn't come in right away."

Pistorello said that an individual's struggle in the wake of Friday's explosion can vary, depending, among other things, on how close they might have been to the explosion when it occurred. That doesn't necessarily mean that individuals who were not present, or close to the explosion, won't be impacted.

"I was working at Counseling Services when 9/11 happened," she said. "We were shocked about the number of students who walked through the door soon after. There are different experiences and different types of trauma for people. Images can trigger a past trauma history, for example. We need to be careful that we don't invalidate a person's experience, and need to be careful about saying things like, ‘Why are you struggling? You weren't even there.'"
That's why it is essential that social relationships remain strong following an event like Friday's.

"Social support is one of the most important elements to keep an event like Friday's blast from becoming traumatic," Pistorello said. "Having social support, having people around you who care, people who listen and who take the time to be present for you, helps us get through challenges like this. It's not just about sending people to counseling. It's students supporting students, faculty supporting students, faculty supporting faculty. It's the feeling that a caring network and the village that is our campus has your back."

Pistorello said we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to processing trauma. Humans generally have minds that she said are like "time travel machines. We often immediately go to worrying about the future or mulling over the past, and becoming prematurely entangled with questions such as, ‘Where am I going to live? What is going to happen to me?' These are very valid questions, but we need to remind ourselves that sometimes the best approach is to stay focused on the present, to be psychologically flexible, and to address issues like that one step at a time, sometimes even one hour at a time. The focus might be on, ‘What can I do, right now, that takes me in a valued direction? What is under my control this moment?'"

That said, Pistorello noted that the more than 200 students who have been displaced have immediate needs that must be met. She said that while it is critical for healthy psychological processing to occur, basic needs and tasks come first.

"If people aren't having their basic needs met, it will be very hard to talk about psychological coping," she said. "We've heard from the international students questions like, ‘How am I going to get home without my passport?' When someone is dealing with a very important question like that, it's probably not a good time to dwell on questions like, ‘How are you feeling?'"

The fact that so few individuals were in the building when the explosion occurred doesn't lessen the ramifications of what happened to those impacted, Pistorello said.

"It's not just what happened, it's the perception of the event," she said. "There are people who were in the building five minutes before the explosion occurred. They are well aware that they might have been in the building and killed or injured. That realization would frighten anybody. It's very important to acknowledge that and to let people process what might've been. This can be helpful in allowing the person to then move on. Again, it's not just the physical occurrence of the event. It's how one's individual history and coping resources interact with it."

In terms of coping, staying emotionally and cognitively flexible, using mindfulness to notice one's own reactions and to bring oneself back to the present moment, while focusing on "What matters to me most?" can help individuals recover and return to baseline functioning. When you have lost all your possessions, for example, what is that matters most to you in that moment? For some, it might be connecting to people, for others it may be returning to a routine. Values can be like a rope to solid ground when you are in the middle of a swamp-it guides you to what matters."

A sense of normalcy will eventually come to campus, Pistorello said, although that definition will vary from individual to individual.

"It all depends on the person," she said. She added that as long as people of the campus look out for one another, the campus will begin to heal.

"We need each other," she said. "It's important that people bear witness to our pain and acknowledge our pain. If we move on too quickly, it can feel invalidating. On the other hand, it's also important to go back to daily routines as soon as possible-it provides comfort. On a group level, we need to acknowledge and appreciate that every person is different, and that there are various types of pain associated with an event like this. There's not just physical pain.

"When we move towards validating another person's experience, with encouragement towards living life with vitality, we can bring some semblance of normalcy to one's life, and help them get on with their life."

Counseling Services can be reached at 775-784-4648; the Crisis Call Hotline is 775-784-8090.

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