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Seattle Counseling Service offers help overcoming ricin threat
Seattle Counseling Service offers help overcoming ricin threat
by Nick Ardizzone - SGN Staff Writer

On January 6, 11 Capitol Hill bars received letters threatening patrons with the deadly poison ricin. Though the Seattle Police Department began working on the case immediately, the anonymous act sent ripples of paranoia through the community. Individual responses ranged from anger to prayer, all stemming from the same catalyst: a breach of safety and an overwhelming sense of vulnerability.

Located on Capitol Hill, Seattle Counseling Service was the first mental health program in the country to serve the LGBT community. The SCS provides comprehensive mental health and chemical dependency services for 1,400 individuals annually and will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The Seattle Gay News spoke with Ann McGettigan, executive director of Seattle Counseling Service, about how to deal with the powerful emotions the threat has stirred in the community.

With her extensive counseling background, McGettigan understands the value of taking threats seriously. She is pleased with the strong response the authorities had to the threats, immediately beginning in-depth investigations and involving outside departments. "I'm grateful we're taking this so seriously, that we're getting the kind of response we're seeing from the Seattle Police Department and the FBI," she said. "To me, it means that, were anything else to happen, we would have an appropriate response from those entities. & There has been really good communication about it - not only with those institutions, but also informally among networks of people. & I am grateful that people are paying attention and are concerned and not just ignoring it or pretending it's not significant."

A WAKE-UP CALL
McGettigan is also proud that Capitol Hill responded with outrage rather than complacency. "That's a coup, I would say, because there have been times in the past where something like this could have gone out and people would have just blown it off or not taken it seriously. As a community, we live in a progressive city & and we pride ourselves on being progressive. But of course, Capitol Hill in Seattle is the perfect target. It's the center of our LGBT community. This is the epicenter of the community, so of course this is where we would be targeted. I think that's part of the shock that people are experiencing.

"I think [the threat] can be a wake-up call to recognize we're not as safe as we think we might be," McGettigan said. "I think that's probably, on a deep level, the challenge with this kind of news. People are probably feeling, 'maybe I don't get to live a regular kind of life.' We've worked hard for civil rights and we've worked to feel good about ourselves and have pride in ourselves as LGBT folks, and here we are being targeted. That's unfair and it's unjust, but it is a reality, so how do we deal with that?"

"I think it asks us as a community to respond by bringing it to light, being willing to talk about it, but also being willing to share the fear that we have and say that it's okay to be afraid, what can you do with that fear?"

"WE'RE NOT GOING TO BE SILENT"
Far from being paralyzed with fear, Capitol Hill organized a pub crawl on January 9 to support the 11 bars targeted by the letters. "Mobilizing the community, coming together and saying, 'we're not going to be silent about this, we're not going to be cowed by this,' I think it's great," she said. "It's a very empowering response."

Although the boisterous pub crawl and community spirit helped dispel much of the fear of attack, McGettigan realizes the threats may be deeply unsettling to some people. "I think it's very important to talk about it," she recommended. "If this is triggering deep anxiety for folks, or it's making people feel really afraid, if it feels immobilizing or causing panic attacks or anxiety attacks, it's really important that people talk about that. If they aren't seeing something for therapy, consider talking to someone - friends and family. If it's really overwhelming, consider professional support, too."

As each individual deals with the threat, their response will depend on how comfortable they feel changing their definition of safety. "Safety is a construct we develop in order to be able to move around in the world," McGettigan said. "But there are threats in the world. There are threats to our safety all the time. I think you have to figure out what your construct of safety is going to look like and what you're comfortable with."

"WE HAVE A RIGHT TO BE HERE"
Even if the letters were only empty threats, McGettigan realizes some damage has already been done to the community. "Something has happened with this already," she said. "The fact that these letters went out and we have had these reactions to the threat, that has had an effect already. Certainly, other things could happen - poisonings, people could become very ill or die - and those things would be a furthering of this threat. What I would hope we do is take this as an opportunity to strengthen our safety net for each other. & Are there opportunities to be safer in what we do and how we act? If something weird is going on, are we going to tell anybody or talk about it, or just think we're imagining things?"

"We should be incorporating any safety we can, and we should be living our lives as freely, as openly, as comfortably as we possibly can, knowing that we have a right to be here," McGettigan said. "I think the key is balancing those two things."

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