Crisis Response that Truly Heals

Accident, fire, or worse — why counselors are so critical

It’s a common refrain, heard on the news after a tragic story: “Crisis counselors have been dispatched to help the survivors.” Although it sounds reassuring, ever wonder who these counselors are and how they seem to appear out of thin air?

As the crisis in Brussels unfolded this week, first responders quickly rushed to the scene to help those wounded physically — and to work with those who will forever be scarred emotionally. But tragic scenes unfold each day in many of our communities.

Depending on the type of tragedy, human-made or natural disaster, an overriding agency usually takes charge — it may be an organization like the Red Cross or Salvation Army; a national agency, like FEMA; or a small county response team.

Crisis or trauma counselors have an immediate goal. They want to establish the safety and stability of those assigned to their care, and make sure they have appropriate support contacts afterward, according to the American Counseling Association.

“Disaster counselors work as a human bridge,” Janet Zinn, a licensed social worker and grief counselor who practices in New York City, told LifeZette. “We help with the transition from shock back to life as clients knew it before the event.”

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Zinn’s experience runs the gamut of disaster response, and shows the range that exists in counseling after tragedy. After Sept. 11, she worked with companies impacted by the terrorist attacks, for businesses offering services after an employee suicide, and even for banks providing assistance after a robbery.

No matter the circumstances, Zinn emphasized the need for those affected to tell their stories.

“Listening to each individual’s stories allows them to make real what seems so unreal to them,” she said. “The counseling is part educational, too. We explain what symptoms they may experience, normalize symptoms such as insomnia, and help them understand what is happening on a cellular and emotional level. For those who think they have to get through every hardship on their own, facts can help them tolerate a little support.”

Trauma responders may be psychologists, therapists, clergy, social workers or licensed counselors. They may have personal contracts with agencies, or be volunteers. Formal plans are drawn up at every level of government and many workplaces have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) as needed — so they can spring into action quickly.

After two young girls died in a house fire in Wauzeka, Wisconsin, population 711, a school district gathered counselors from several nearby school districts to help the girls’ school cope with the loss.

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In a community that small, practically everyone in town was affected, said the family’s pastor, Lynn Schreck, of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church; she participated in the counseling of the family. Schreck said crisis counseling extends in all directions, not just to the family. The first responders, firefighters and police, needed their own intervention process as well.

Post-incident support may be formal or informal, and take varying lengths of time. Some people have personal networks of friends and family that help them recover. They may respond resiliently and creatively to move on after tragedy.

Others exhibit post-traumatic disintegration, in one form or another. It may show up as reduced self-care; addictive tendencies; relationship and work difficulties; uncontrollable emotional eruptions; hopelessness or anxiety; withdrawal from life routines and events; and overwhelming guilt or shame.

Dr. Gary Brown, a therapist in Los Angeles, assisted after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, at Ground Zero after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in 2001, and after the EF5 level tornado in Joplin, Missouri, in 2011.

“Those of us who work in the field of trauma know it is important to not do ‘stand alone’ interventions,” he said. “By that, I mean you want to follow up with everyone you’ve worked with, to see how they are doing, to let them know they have a safety net, and to assess if they might need more support.”

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Brown echoes the need for crisis responders themselves to have follow-up attention. As a combat veteran, he was able to draw upon considerable personal experience and function as the first disaster mental health responder, working directly on the pile of rubble after the 9/11 attack. But he later sought help integrating what he had witnessed.

“It had quite an impact on me,” he said. “Try to imagine standing on a debris field with the remains of several thousand of your fellow citizens beneath you — it was truly horrific. I knew I was going to have some delayed responses and need some help when I returned home. I take my own medicine. The follow-up was extremely helpful for me.”

Dr. Nancy Irwin, a Los Angeles-based therapist, believes the immediate deployment of specialists in any psychologically disruptive event is crucial and the trend towards critical incident counseling important for everyone involved.

“The earlier the intervention, the better,” she told LifeZette. “Counseling can help one move through and understand the natural phases of grieving and reclaim meaning and joy in life.”

Pat Barone, CPCC, BCC, MCC is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating. 

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