Support Group Introduces Trauma Survivors to the Benefits of Therapy - Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton Support Group Introduces Trauma Survivors to the Benefits of Therapy - Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton

Support Group Introduces Trauma Survivors to the Benefits of Therapy

A man and a woman are seated at a table. Two women are standing directly behind them. There are all facing the camera and smiling.

Joseph Halsey, founder of the James R. Halsey Foundation of the Arts, Harmony, Children and Family Services Clinical Director Caryn Hirsch and Program Director Sully Soto review the plans for the next meeting of Healing and Harmonizing, an informal group that provides survivors of violence with therapeutic art-based activities.

It’s really not the kind of an anniversary to celebrate, but April 27 marks two years since Monnae was shot while sitting in the passenger seat of her friend’s car. She described how, in an instant, the driver’s side window shattered and a single bullet passed through her friend’s hand, struck Monnae in the wrist and then grazed her chest.

“My friend panicked and drove off,” said Monnae. “But when we got to the corner, she was bleeding too much and she started yelling that she couldn’t do it. So I had to jump in the driver’s seat.” Monnae drove to the hospital. She remembers a lot of blood in the car and being afraid to swallow because there was glass from the window in her mouth.

Monnae, who is from Trenton, said she is no stranger to gun violence. “I’ve seen a lot. I have seen friends get shot. I have had to run from gunshots.” During one incident, she said she hid under a car, and saw someone get shot in the foot. “I saw the bullet go into his foot, and I watched him hop to the porch.”

When Bullets are a Part of the Landscape

For Monnae, and so many young people living in Trenton, gun violence “feels normal.” Actor, filmmaker and Trenton native Joseph Halsey received a grant from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office to produce a video about violence affecting youth. Halsey is also the founder of the James R. Halsey Foundation of the Arts, a non-profit delivering arts education and lessons in filmmaking to youth in Trenton. Because many of the kids involved in his programs have experienced gun violence, he decided to interview young men and women who had been shot.

As he was working on what would become a three-part documentary “I’ve Been Shot!”, Halsey enlisted the help of Children and Family Services Clinical Director Caryn Hirsch to provide support as an on-set clinician. Hirsch said the subjects in the video insisted they wouldn’t be needing her help. “The kids were all saying, ‘I’m fine,’ but while they were being interviewed, you could see them start to break down. They were in tears,” she said. “They all knew about PTSD. And they all knew they had it. But none of them had ever been offered or sought treatment for it.” She also said they sincerely doubted she would be able to help them, because she had never lived through what they had experienced.

After the filming, Halsey and Hirsch knew they had to do something. “We started talking and trying to figure out how we could link these kids to therapy. How could we get them to realize the benefits of therapy?” said Hirsch.

“We wanted to let them know, yes, there are tools we can show you to help make the nightmares go away.” Soon after that conversation, the Foundation and Catholic Charities joined forces and created Healing and Harmonizing, a drop-in group for trauma survivors in their teens and early twenties. Once a month, Family Access Center Program Director Sully Soto leads sessions built around fun, arts-based activities; participants share only what they’re comfortable sharing. The program is free.

Building a Bridge

Children and Family Services Service Area Director Mary Pettrow said the Healing and Harmonizing program offers participants an introduction to what a therapeutic support group might feel like. “It gives the women an idea of what therapy is, what it can and cannot help with. I feel like this program is a bridge that may help these survivors seek therapy when they are ready,” said Pettrow. “And when they are ready, we will be here for them.”

A key factor in the collaboration has been Harmony, a community partner in the project and one of the young women featured in Halsey’s documentary. She dropped out of high school to care for her boyfriend after he was shot. Several years later during a party on Memorial Day, gun shots rang out and Harmony was struck six times. She watched a close friend die that night. “I used to be happy and free-spirited,” she said. “But this experience has been painful, both physically and mentally.”

Finding a Way to Help Others

Harmony said it took a long time for her to want to get professional help for herself. After seeing the benefits, she wanted to help others find the same relief. She actively recruits her friends, family and members of the community to attend the sessions. Harmony, who recently earned her GED, and started going to school to become a medical assistant, said “I never knew I was capable of doing things to help others in my community. It feels good.”

One of the women she encouraged to attend Healing and Harmonizing was her cousin, Monnae. After joining the group, Monnae decided to try one-on-one therapy with Scott Minchello, a Licensed Professional counselor and the program coordinator for the Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Program. Working with Minchello, she has been able to identify triggers that can set off bouts of post-traumatic stress. “Monnae is learning different ways to manage her triggers cognitively,” said Minchello.

Monnae said therapy with Minchello is also helping in other areas of her life. “I feel like a better person,” said Monnae. “Scott makes me look at the way I think about things. Now instead of just reacting, I think about the other person and realize they could have a different point of view.” After attending private therapy sessions, Monnae returned to the group and said, “Everyone needs a Scott.”

FOR INFORMATION on the Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Program, call (609) 394–5157. For information about Healing and Harmonizing, call (609) 938–3673.

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