Tony Colombrito has been a trained American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer for the past two years, but it wasn’t until the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that he finally deployed. He spent nearly a week with residents of the town and quickly realized the importance of mental health professionals during times of tragedy.
A member of the American Counseling Association, Colombrito works in a private group practice and another group practice in New Haven, Conn., and lives in Hamden, an hour away from Newtown. He was onsite in Newtown within hours of the shooting.
He says all of the American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteers — not just first-time responders like him — needed time to adjust to the severity of the situation. In all, 26 people — six educators and 20 children — were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, making it the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. The shooter also turned the gun on himself.
“This was such a unique situation, even for the experienced clinicians I worked with,” Colombrito says. “Many of them had 10, 20 years of experience working with the Red Cross, but even for them this was a unique experience because of the mass casualties.”
Colombrito and the other early responders were instructed to head to the American Red Cross chapter in Bethel, Conn., where plans were being formulated. From there, they headed to a fire department close to Newtown Elementary School, where Sandy Hook students were evacuated to and reunited with their families.
“When we arrived [at the firehouse],” Colombrito says, “there were several families, and each family who suffered a loss had a state trooper [with them]. My role was to be a clinician. I felt my obligation was to acclimate myself to the community. My role was to work the crowd, so to speak, touch base with the other first responders and the Ladies Auxiliary [who was also there]. Sometimes we had to take a supportive role, whether it was giving them a pat on the back or telling them a joke.”
During the six days he spent with Newtown residents, Colombrito says his top priorities were “getting to know them as neighbors and trying to be sensitive to what they needed and didn’t need.”
A new role for mental health workers
The families of the victims were not given official death notifications on the day of the shooting. Instead, the following day, 26 teams were created, each composed of a state trooper, a minister and a mental health professional from the American Red Cross. For the first time in American Red Cross history, its mental health volunteers, including Colombrito, were being involved in the notification process.
The teams went door to door to break the news to the families. Connecticut Gov. Dan Molloy did not want families to see pictures of the victims or to view their bodies, so each team was given a packet of information containing a school photo, the name of the child’s teacher (if the victim was a student) and a description what the individual was wearing that day. Also enclosed was information regarding federal support to help the families with funeral arrangements, Colombrito says.
“The idea was to create an indirect confirmation [of the victims]” and to notify all of the families at the same time, he explains.
“You don’t know what you’re going to run into when it comes to notifying families,” Colombrito acknowledges. “All you can do is do your job the best you can and be supportive, assess the situation and be available if the family wants to talk.”
Many of the families already knew the fate of their children by the time the teams arrived, Colombrito says. His team spent roughly 20 minutes with the family assigned to it. “The family was very numb in a sense,” he says. “They were [also] very receptive … and had a sense of appreciation that we were talking with them.”
However, he adds, “A true sense of what they’re going through is beyond our understanding.”
Consoling one another
On Colombrito’s third day in Newtown, one of the lead clinicians asked him and four others to form a team responsible for counseling the families of victims before a memorial service.
The families were cordoned off in different classrooms in the high school where the service was being held. Colombrito was assigned to speak with the families of the adult victims.
“When I was introduced,” he says, “the atmosphere was solemn but peaceful. You got the sense they were grieving. It was not a highly charged emotional situation. It was in line with the shock and numb phase of the grief process.”
The families sat in chairs, which were set up in a circle. Colombrito worked with the families for three hours. “There was a [substantial] amount of time where quality interaction could occur and where a sense of opening [up] could occur,” he says.
Allowing the families to communicate with one another during this time was just as important as having them speak with a licensed professional counselor, Colombrito says.
“These families had been isolated up until this point,” he says. “This brought an opportunity for them to be together and console one another. I saw one family find out they shared relatives with another. This discovery was a very beautiful thing.”
This dynamic between the families remained strong even when President Obama came in to speak with them.
“I think everyone was really impressed,” Colombrito says. “Here we are in a relatively good-sized room, but not a big room, so there was an intimacy with the president. It was very beautiful to see. But as each family watched the other family talk to the others, you could tell their hearts just went out to each other.”
The president spoke with each of the families, doing his best to say the right thing and acting in almost a “fatherly” manner, Colombrito says. But the mood in the room instantly lightened when someone asked the president to take a photo with him.
“[That] became a very important ritual for the families,” Colombrito says.
During the memorial service, Colombrito and the other mental health volunteers stood off to the side, attentively watching for whether the families needed comforting.
At the beginning of the ceremony, a police officer who had been one of the first to arrive on the scene at Sandy Hook started having trouble keeping it together. “I just put my arm on him and tried to be there for him,” Colombrito says.
The police officer wasn’t alone in needing support.
“There were a lot people on our side of the auditorium who just broke down and wailed,” Colombrito says. “Our job was to recognize that they were having a hard time and hand them a box tissues or do whatever [else] we could.”
Providing comfort to the town
Much of Colombrito’s time in Newtown as an American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer was spent doing whatever he could to provide comfort to the heartbroken residents.
At one point, Colombrito was stationed at a makeshift memorial for the victims located in the center of the town.
“They created a corridor for people to walk up to and honor the victims [so they could] pray or do whatever they wanted to do to express their grief,” he says. “If people needed to talk or express what they were going through, it was my job to [listen] and work the crowd.”
Colombrito had many opportunities to provide crisis counseling to town members. At one point, a woman was taken to the fire station, accompanied by school personnel. The woman worked at the Newtown Elementary School cafeteria, and people were asking her who had survived the shooting at Sandy Hook. The continuous questioning had taken a toll on her.
“After awhile it was just too much,” Colombrito says. “She wisely decided, ‘I’m not going to break down in front of my kids. I’m going to the fire station [to talk to someone].’”
Colombrito spoke with her for roughly 45 minutes about what she had been going through since the tragedy. He found that opening up about the pain she had been experiencing helped her resilience to shine through.
“It allowed her to vent and grieve,” Colombrito says, “and once she went through that, it was like she snapped through that and her strength came out. Her professional role as school personnel came out.”
In another instance, a man who ran a local catering business came to the fire station. He said he was worried about one of his employees.
“It was really difficult for [the man], not knowing who had survived or not,” Colombrito says. The man also wanted the mental health intervention to be performed for his employees at their place of business.
After speaking with the chief of police and Newtown’s first selectman, Colombrito connected the man to a local crisis counseling center. Colombrito could sense, however, that the man still had more he needed to process.
“I turned to him and said, ‘It’s not just your employees who are grieving, it’s you who is grieving. Tell me how you’re feeling.’”
The man admitted he had been experiencing feelings of depression since the shooting and spoke with Colombrito about what he had been going through.
Looking into the future after an atypical disaster
Spending six consecutive days in Newtown allowed Colombrito to dive headfirst into disaster mental health service and truly understand what it means to be one of the first to respond in the aftermath of a tragedy.
“First responders have to put aside what they’re feeling to deal with the situation,” he says. “It’s about blending in with the situation.”
Colombrito found that going with one’s instinct is a key trait for a disaster mental health volunteer.
“When you’re on the scene, you’ve got to decide what your role is going to be,” he says. “You have to assess the situation, and you can’t have any second thoughts.”
Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, he says many counselors have asked him how to get involved with disaster mental health counseling.
“Many clinicians I know really want to step up and help out with the Red Cross,” Colombrito says. “If something happens like this again, they want to be able to help. [I predict] more clinicians will volunteer in the future.”
He believes the tragic circumstances of what occurred in Newtown brought to light the need for mental health services after national emergencies.
“I think people were drawn to the ages and the circumstances, and the idea of people being ripped away from their families,” says Colombrito. “I don’t think people can imagine a worse type of suffering. This is something we have never experienced as a community and as a nation.”
For more information on becoming a certified disaster mental health volunteer, visit counseling.org/sub/dmh/redcross.aspx
Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.