By Nancy Bohl-Penrod, Ph.D., Director of the Counseling Team International (TCTI)
We are trained to respond to traumatic and inconceivably sad situations. On December 2, 2016, our Critical Incident Stress Management Team (CISM) was dispatched to the site of the San Bernardino, Inland Regional Center attacks, just blocks from our Headquarters office. What awaited us was the “active” situation of innocent people being escorted by law enforcement to safety, while other officers were securing the area, looking for victims and conducting a manhunt for the shooters.
Now considered an isolated terrorist attack, the world was watching the heroic efforts of our public safety personnel, from law enforcement to firefighters and paramedics. The human toll was 14 killed and 22 injured on that day. The emotional toll cannot be counted and could last for years if not for forever.
As experts in Critical Incident Stress Management, we work on scene to establish a mental health post for those involved, including public safety and civilians. Nineteen of our counselors worked for several straight days assisting people with how to cope emotionally.
Press Enterprise reporter, Suzanne Hurt, wanted to know more about how to cope after a traumatic event, and interviewed Dr. Peter Yellowlees, a UC Davis psychiatry professor and me. Here are the 7 Steps to Heal, published in SAN BERNARDINO SHOOTING: Survivors, community need time to heal, experts say. 1
- Don’t withdraw. Stay in close contact with family and friends. Attend vigils, community gatherings or church services and grieve the loss of people and other losses, such as the sense of safety and control.
- Maintain as normal of a routine as possible.
- Tell stories. Talk about what happened and how you felt, especially with others who were there, and listen to their stories.
- Don’t try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. You may need to limit driving for a few days while your mind is focused on what you went through.
- Get counseling and see your medical doctor if needed.
- Balance your need for information from newspapers and TV. Don’t become obsessed and spend hours seeking every detail.
- Take care of yourself. Try to get plenty of sleep and exercise. Use mindfulness techniques that can be found online, and pursue hobbies.
How do we prepare people for something like this? Our Public Safety Peer Support courses offer training on how to recognize and respond when someone is experiencing mental or emotional health issues. Public Safety Peer Support programs operate within fire departments, law enforcement agencies both at the federal, state, and local levels. A public safety peer supporter can identify what might otherwise go unnoticed, such as signs of depression, or post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in a co-worker. When they establish that there may be a problem, they are trained on how best to obtain help for that person.
We are honored to have assisted first responders and citizens after the San Bernardino shootings and are here whenever they need our services. Although we’re saddened by such life-altering events, we are dedicated to ease the psychological pain they cause. I still remember the interventions that we provided following the 911 attacks in New York City in 2001, among many others since.
Our team of highly trained mental health professionals have been working with public safety for more than 30 years, and this work has been − and still is− immensely rewarding. Our motto is “Serving Those Who Serve.” What greater calling could The Counseling Team have than that!
1) Suzanne Hurt, San Bernardino Shooting: Survivors, community need time to heal, experts say., The Press Enterprise, Riverside, CA