Grief counseling plays major role in school shooting recoveries
Thursday, February 15, 2018
On Feb. 14, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, murdered at least 17 people allegedly using an AR-15 assault weapon. He was also armed with smoke grenades and countless magazines.
It is difficult for those involved to recover from this kind of event, and officials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas had already done much to prepare for a shooting. Regular simulated shooter drills are held at this and other Florida schools, but there's still not much one can do when facing a dedicated shooter.
Now, public officials, educators, parents and concerned community members are swiftly responding to this crisis in the hopes they can avoid long-term trauma and help recover a sense of normalcy in a difficult climate.
One of the most immediate concerns is the need to provide grief counseling for anyone who needs it. The aftermath of the Dec. 4, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, provides insight into the need for counseling and ongoing monitoring of students and those affected by a shooting.
In fact, five years after Sandy Hook, they are still witnessing negative mental health issues, as "substance abuse, relationship troubles, disorganization, depression, overthinking or inability to sleep" are all cited as ongoing problems related to the attack.
This fact alone tells us that counseling is a long-term need in these cases. School counselors and community services have been established in Newtown, which has received $15 million in recovery-focused grants from the Department of Education and Department of Justice. The town has also raised private donations to make counseling services available to those who can't afford it.
Already in Parkland, Florida, counseling options are available. Florida Blue has set up a free grief counseling hotline, and Broward County Public Schools has already released a list of sites where counseling is available. They are using all possible space at these sites, including a local performing arts center, recreation center, gymnasium and middle school.
It is important to note that while staff, including school counselors and teachers, may be called on to provide support to students and their families, they also need counseling. This service for grieving staff is already available at a local library.
According to the American Counseling Association, horrific events like shootings can have unpredictable far-reaching effects: "The impact often extends to individuals who live far outside of the affected area with no personal connections to the event. This is especially true when the event is human-caused with the intent of harming others. Even counselors with advanced training can become overwhelmed by the intensity of these tragic events."
The association makes a few helpful suggestions about coping with grief and trauma after a shooting:
- attend to your own self care
- pay attention to your emotional health
- recognize your own or others' needs for support
- avoid excessive media exposure
- stay connected to friends and family
- focus on what makes you feel emotionally healthy
- talk to others as needed
Psychology Today offers similar advice about life after a shooting. The importance of a "therapeutic environment" is emphasized, which is what Broward County Public Schools has already established in under 24 hours.
We are reminded that each individual reacts to trauma differently, and we should know the warning signs of psychological problems, even if someone appears to be coping well. Changes in eating and sleeping habits, withdrawal from school and friends, irritability and a excessive focus on re-enacting the event through play are all warning signs.
Once Marjory Stoneman Douglas students return to school after President's Day, teachers and school counselors will play an important role in monitoring students' emotional health. The American School Counselor Association acknowledges the significant role school counselors play during traumatic times.
"School counselors are vital resources in preventing violent incidents, intervening when concerns arise about potential violence and responding when violence occurs," the association states. "Through the implementation of a comprehensive school counseling program, school counselors promote school safety, assist students engaging in unhealthy or unsafe behaviors and make referrals as needed."
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