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Enduring traumatic stress from COVID? A free forum will help the public sort out some solutions.

Woman with sign thanking workers

Berkshire Healthcare System employees stand at the entrance to Hillcrest Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Pittsfield in 2020 during shift change to thank the staff working in the building.

STOCKBRIDGE — Although current COVID transmission rates in Berkshire County are relatively low, the psychological fallout from the pandemic remains a major concern.

Some health professionals believe the virus is becoming endemic, meaning it resurfaces in various forms, much like influenza, but its impact is less devastating and widespread than it has been.

This Saturday at 9 a.m. in an outdoor setting at the Marian Fathers on Eden Hill, a group of specialists from the Erikson Institute for Education, Research, and Advocacy at the Austen Riggs Center will host a community forum to discuss post-traumatic stress experienced by people from all walks of life.

The free, 90-minute public event at 2 Prospect Hill Road is a collaboration between the leading mental health facility founded in 1913 and the Tri-Town Health Boards of Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge. No registration is required to attend the forum, titled “Grappling with COVID-19: What can we learn from our experiences during the pandemic?”

“Isolation, anxiety, depression, despair, grief and anger have filled our days over the past two years, as our society has struggled through the pandemic and tried to figure out how to manage it,” said Jane Tillman, director of the Erikson Institute.

“Many health care workers, seniors, students, teachers, parents, restaurant owners, business people, families and town officials have felt alone with uncertainty, turmoil and confusion, both about events in our individual lives and about changing governmental responses,” she said.

The institute’s announcement acknowledged that “some have even discovered new aspects of resilience, of family and community engagement. This Community Forum is an opportunity to hear from each other, to learn from the range of our experiences as fellow citizens, and to bring us back together as a community as the pandemic wanes.”

Select Board and Board of Health representatives from Tri-Town member communities will detail their reasons for asking the Riggs Center to organize the forum, said Dr. Charles Kenny, chairman of the Stockbridge Board of Health and of the Tri-Town Health Boards.

Then, the forum will be open to public discussion.

The Austen Riggs Center’s hosts for the event include faculty member Dr. Edward R. Shapiro, who was medical director and CEO of the center from 1991-2011; Erikson Institute faculty member M. Gerard Fromm, former director of the Erikson Institute; and Donna Elmendorf, director of the Therapeutic Community Program at the Riggs Center.

“We’re hoping for a good conversation, one that not only answers the community’s questions about COVID but, even more importantly, opens up what people have gone through in these difficult two years,” Fromm stated. “Sometimes those experiences have led to conflict among community members and with medical professionals as well. We hope to learn from whatever people want to share and, through that, to come back together as a community.”

Shapiro noted that “nobody has been spared” from the pandemic and other stress factors in society.

“This will be an unusual meeting,” he told The Eagle, comparing it to a similar forum held by the Riggs Center after 9/11 that yielded “an amazing conversation — people were feeling frightened, isolated. We offered a space for them to begin to re-establish a sense of community, and it was very moving series of meetings.”

Shapiro hopes for a similar result on Saturday, describing “victim/perpetrator” splits during the pandemic, with government health care leaders under criticism by “people who were getting extremely angry about efforts to minimize the illness and death.”

At the meeting, Shapiro wants people to understand that everybody, in every role, is struggling — students, parents, business owners, health care providers. “The stress is widespread,” he said.

Kenny said that speaking will be informal, and organizers intend to encourage audience participation on an equal footing. “I’m hoping people will feel like, and benefit from describing some of their personal difficulties during the plague, how they survived, and hopefully provide insights into what we can do better the next time,” he said.

“The past two years have been very trying for most people, for some more than others,” Kenny said. He cited considerable evidence that although the virus may have been subdued, “the effects of the social, psychological and economic trauma persist.”

As he pointed out, “Some people have lost loved ones. Seniors have been afraid to go out. Nurses and emergency staff worked under extreme stress. Schools closed. People have stayed at a distance from strangers and avoided hugging their family members.”

During the worst stages of the pandemic, Kenny said, social and entertainment gatherings were canceled or curtailed, weddings were postponed, businesses closed, people lost their jobs, crime rates went up, and town committee meetings have been poorly attended.

“People seem unable to see another point of view in a discussion,” he said.

The initial organizers of the event include Tri-Town Executive Director Jim Wilusz, Stockbridge Select Board Chairman Patrick White, Lenox Select Board member Marybeth Mitts, Dianne Romeo of the Lenox Board of Health, Dr. Robert Wespiser, chairman of the Lee Board of Health and Lee Selectman Robert Jones.

More details: austenriggs.org/CommunityForum2022

This story has been modified to correctly attribute a quote to M. Gerald Fromm.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto

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