“Counselors Are on the Scene” – Now What?

(Editor’s note:  Primary care clinicians pride themselves on being able to handle medical emergencies, but the best response after an emotional trauma is less well known.  We often hear after such events that “counselors have been called in” but what do they actually do?  On this 9/11 anniversary, Robin Pesci, who directs a local crisis response team for children, offers some valuable insights on this important topic – DCR) 

by Robin Pesci, LICSW

When there has been a tragedy in the community you will frequently hear about grief counseling being available, counselors being at the school for support or of numbers that people can call to get help from mental health professionals.  Support may be brought in for many types of tragedies, a shooting with many victims, the Red Cross might respond to a house fire or natural disaster, or a school may ask for help with a car accident or a death by suicide.  Many people reach out for help and support after a tragedy but some people are hesitant about having contact with mental health professionals because of the stigma around mental health issues and treatment.  

Robin Pesci, LICSW
Director, First Call for Children and Families
HowardCenter – Child, Youth and Family Services

The support provided to the general community during a tragedy is very different than other types of mental health support like ongoing therapy or psychiatry.   Often they are the same people that do therapy (counselors, social workers, or psychologists) who are providing the mental health response in a tragedy but the type of service is different than what you would see in a therapy office.  There is no time spent on diagnosis or treatment goals.  Support is sometimes provided in an informal setting, individually or in groups and may be limited to a couple of contacts.  When responding to a tragedy, general support is offered to a wide range of people, and something called Psychological First Aid is often provided.  Psychological First Aid can take many forms depending on the type of tragedy.  It could involve sitting with someone while they are crying, getting them tissues, water or food if they need it, or helping connect them to their friends and family for support.  It may also be helping support people while they make cards for those most impacted by the tragedy, supporting someone through a funeral, listening to their story of their experience or connecting them to resources in the community for support.  In response to a tragedy many people will be able to process what happened with this level of general support and continue on with their lives, possibly forever changed.  There may be a group of people for whom further support is needed.  In these instances, the mental health counselor assists in identifying those that many need additional support and connecting them to the most appropriate resources.  

Another role for a mental health response in a tragedy is to provide consultation and support to the systems around people in the community.  Schools, businesses and other community organizations often need help and information to provide a supportive environment to their students or staff.  Mental health providers who are trained to respond after a tragedy can be a great resource about how to handle unique aspects to a tragedy.  Mental health providers may also be part of the first responder team working in conjunction with the police or rescue personnel to support people on the scene of a tragedy as it is happening. 

In a tragedy the more help we can offer to each other the more strength we can find in our community and each other. 

Click here for more information about Psychological First Aid.  In Chittenden County Vermont call First Call for Children and Families 802-488-7777 to get support in a tragedy.

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