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UNRESOLVED TRAUMAS LEAD TO TRAGEDIES, PSYCHOTHERAPIST SAYS

Published: Sunday, Sept. 17 1989 12:00 a.m. MDT

Unless people learn to deal with unresolved trauma, says a local psychotherapist, there will be other Joseph Wesbeckers going berserk in the world.

On Thursday, Wesbecker, an out-of-work printer, shot 21 of his former co-workers in a Kentucky printing plant. Although Wesbecker's history is sketchy, it is believed that he was on medical disability and that he had recently received a letter from the printing company announcing that his disability income would be canceled.Wesbecker's explosive reaction to these events is indicative of a person who has never been properly treated for trauma, says Barry M. Richards, a Salt Lake psychotherapist specializing in "traumatology."

That there is now a specialty called traumatology says something about how full of violence and accidents the modern world is. It's also evidence, says Richards, that more people are recognizing the need to help trauma victims heal emotionally as well as physically.

But apparently, says Richards, no one was paying sufficient attention to Joseph Wesbecker's symptoms.

"The fact that he was disabled meant he was unable to make a livelihood. It meant that he was no longer `manly,' and that he would be dependent on other people," says Richards. "That's destructive to a man's, or a woman's, self-worth.

"He was apparently angry at the people who didn't seem to care about his dilemma."

Although Wesbecker may have had earlier unresolved traumas in his life, this final feeling of helplessness and hopelessness triggered his rampage through the Louisville printing plant that led to seven deaths and 14 injuries, says Rich-ards.

The traumatologist recalls working with a Salt Lake man who had been in an automobile accident that had left him in a coma. Although the man eventually recovered physically, "a dark emotional wound refused to heal," says Richards.

Six years after the accident the man was admitted to a psychiatric ward, where he went berserk, ripping out a toilet. On another occasion he aimed a loaded shotgun at his head.

Although many of the clients who seek Richards' help come in initially with complaints about marriage or work-related problems, "invariably they've had an unresolved trauma that was never attended to," he says. "And many of these people are accidents looking to happen."

Although typically post-traumatic stress disorder refers to the kinds of flashbacks and emotional problems experienced by Vietnam veterans, PTSD can also be the side effect of automobile accidents, rapes, plane crashes, abuse or any violent event or accident. It could also include the trauma of being laid off from work, says Richards.

When any of these traumas is not addressed within six months, he says, it tends to fester in the victim's mind.

According to Richards, who is the author of "Thriving After Surviving," there are four key ingredients in helping people work through a traumatic event:

-They need to know what the normal symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are. These include headaches, nausea, dizziness, loss of energy, irritability, severe depression, sleep disturbances, memory loss, sudden hostile behavior, and chronic pain.

-If the person is aware of these symptoms he may be able to avoid a snowballing effect (for example, irritability leading to a loss of friendships, which could lead to paranoia).

-A "primary support system" - family or friends who also know what to expect and can be on the alert if normal symptoms turn into something more severe.

-A timely response to the problem. Before going into private practice, Richards worked as a trauma-tologist at LDS Hospital, where he helped accident victims even during their first hours in the emergency room.

-A cooperative involvement of everyone involved in the "rebuilding" process. That might have included, in Joseph Wesbecker's case, his employers - the ones he set out to gun down last Thursday.

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