Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Lessons learned from a community crisis

By John Rogers and Cynthia Miller October 5, 2020

Counselors in the quiet university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, had noticed that some of their clients were anxious about their safety. As winter changed to spring in 2017, demonstrations and counterprotests at local Civil War monuments had become heated and confrontational. Now, in early summer, there was word on the street that a major pro-statue demonstration was being planned, potentially involving hundreds or even thousands of members of extremist White supremacist organizations. 

Counselors did their best to help clients cope with the worrisome news flow, but none of us could have anticipated the explosion of hatred, violence and loss that occurred on Aug. 12 of that year. On that day, Charlottesville experienced a violent episode of domestic terrorism that left three people dead, scores injured and an entire community shaken to its core.

This painful episode in our nation’s recent history is also the story of one counseling community’s challenge to organize, respond and incorporate lessons learned. We offer these experiences with a sense of humility and hope that others might consider incorporating some of the lessons we learned. Our own journey as a community of counselors might help others prepare for human crises that can tear at the social fabric of a city or town. Communities, like individuals, can experience a victim-survivor-thriver cycle, but that growth includes painful introspection.

As Charlottesville residents, we were both actively involved in the counseling community’s response to the Aug. 12 violence. At the time, John was a master’s degree student at James Madison University in clinical mental health counseling and a volunteer at Charlottesville’s main homeless shelter, while Cindy was (and is) a Charlottesville-based licensed professional counselor and counselor educator. We have seen and been personally involved in the personal and collective transition from victim to survivor, and then on to the resolve and determination to thrive as a community. In the course of developing this article, we met with local and regional counselors to present our initial thoughts and to gather feedback and suggestions. While our colleagues’ input was invaluable, this article and any errors or omissions within are the responsibility of the authors.

Setting and storm clouds

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia’s Albemarle County, Charlottesville is a university town with deep roots in the South. As home to Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia (UVA), our town has a complex and at times contradictory history of slavery, visionary political and philosophical leadership, support for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and upheaval during the civil rights movement. Charlottesville itself has a population of roughly 50,000 residents, whereas the surrounding county has a population of 107,000. Students attending UVA add an additional 23,000 residents to the population each year. Charlottesville’s racial diversity is broadly similar to the country as a whole, with Whites constituting 70% of its population. It is a relatively highly educated community, with more than 50% of adult residents holding a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared with the national average of 35%). 

The demand for mental health services in Charlottesville far exceeds the availability of these services. Although Charlottesville has two hospitals, only one of them has psychiatric facilities. The local community services board offers a crisis stabilization unit, limited residential services and a range of outpatient services, but it is primarily devoted to serving those with severe mental illness. UVA’s two counseling centers typically operate at capacity and refer students into the community for long-term needs. Although there is a fairly large community of mental health professionals in private practice in the immediate area, most have waitlists. It is estimated that there is one mental health provider for every 116 residents in Charlottesville and one mental health provider for every 977 residents in Albemarle County.

As is the case in many Southern towns and cities, White civic leaders placed monuments to Confederate Civil War leaders in Charlottesville’s main squares during the peak years of the Jim Crow laws from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.  These statues became symbols of the increasingly racially charged rhetoric leading up to and in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The volume of local discussions on race rose in Charlottesville with the national trend, resulting in heated city council meetings and activism on both sides of the symbolism of the statues in town.

In February 2017, the Charlottesville City Council approved a measure to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Lee Park, in the center of town. Lawsuits seeking to block this action followed, and in May 2017, a march by pro-statue supporters, including self-proclaimed “alt-right” and White supremacist groups, took place in the park housing the statue. This was met with counterdemonstrations and an editorial in The New York Times denouncing the racist protest. Afterward, the Ku Klux Klan filed for a permit to hold a demonstration in Lee Park in July, and a separate filing was made to permit a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. The stage was set for the event that would put Charlottesville on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

As the weather warmed and gatherings increased, local counselors began to hear from clients who had attended anti-racist rallies or witnessed the frequent pro-statue demonstrations. Clients brought their fears, determination and other emotions to the counseling room as they processed the buildup in tensions in the community. Some counselors who were connected to anti-racist information sources volunteered to provide on-site services at a counterprotest held the night of the July 8 Ku Klux Klan rally. Their experiences providing crisis counseling services led them to reach out to the local counseling community through informal channels in an effort to prepare on a larger scale for the impending Aug. 12 rally.

This unofficial network of information, in part spurred by information from clients, leads us to our first takeaway in terms of preparing for and responding to community crises:

Lesson #1: Counselors are connected to critical information sources that are often unavailable to local officials. While client confidentiality must always be protected, a counseling community that is connected internally and to official channels can use this information to support advance planning and coordination efforts. 

Into the storm

As the Unite the Right rally approached, several groups — unfortunately, not connected to one another — considered how to respond. Law enforcement authorities prepared contingency plans, with questionable levels of coordination across jurisdictions. The clergy was an early and visible organizing force, coming together to offer worship services for hope and calm, places of refuge, and leadership in counterdemonstrations. Students at UVA quickly came together to respond to a racist protest, organized secretly by White supremacist groups, that occurred on the university’s grounds the evening of Aug. 11. 

Anti-racist organizers operated largely below the radar to assemble demonstrators and support services in anticipation of a major rally. A small number of counselors, in cooperation with the First United Methodist Church, established an on-site presence on the edge of Lee Park. They were joined by observers from the emergency services unit attached to Charlottesville’s community services board, a major mental health care provider. In coordination with street medics and clergy, the on-site counseling team helped more than 20 demonstrators who asked for help dealing with the chaotic scene unfolding around them. 

The demonstration quickly turned violent, with sustained clashes between Unite the Right demonstrators and counterprotesters, police and bystanders. The city center became a scene of destruction, fear and mayhem. The violence continued even after police ordered the downtown area cleared, culminating in the death of Heather Heyer and multiple others being injured when a Unite the Right demonstrator plowed his vehicle into a crowd of counterdemonstrators. (The driver was convicted of first-degree murder in 2019 and sentenced to life plus 419 years in prison.) During the hours of chaos, two Virginia State Police officers died when their helicopter, which was being used to coordinate law enforcement activities, crashed.

Struggling to organize

Even before the bottles, tear gas canisters and other debris could be cleaned from the streets, an online discussion group used sporadically by local counselors began to buzz with messages and questions about what had just happened and what to do next. The town convulsed with grief and anger, but there was no disaster recovery or crisis counseling plan in place. Despite informal outreach by a few counselors to authorities prior to the demonstration, there was no offer to coordinate resources. 

In this vacuum, counselors from the online discussion group, including Cindy, organized a venue to convene an initial meeting of those interested in responding to the crisis. In trying to cast a broad net to area counselors, we discovered that the Virginia Counselors Association (VCA), a branch of the American Counseling Association, could help with a critical link: a database of members in the area that VCA used to send out a blast email announcing the organizing meeting. This proved to be a critical resource in communication, but the fact is that we landed on it somewhat randomly. The uncertainty and lack of direction we experienced as we struggled to organize leads us to our second major lesson:

Lesson #2: Prior planning is essential. A community crisis overwhelms individual and group coping mechanisms, but a well-thought-out plan, combined with rehearsals, can provide essential structure, guidelines and stress testing. A crisis strains already full counseling workloads, and resources must be identified before they are needed to create capacity for crisis counseling. Crisis counseling often takes place outside of the conventional office environment.

The initial meeting of counselors took place three days after the violence ended. More than 60 counselors, students and others in the helping professions showed up, overwhelming our expectations. We were surprised by the numbers and by the fact that many of those attending had never met, despite being members of the local counseling community. Much of the initial meeting was taken up with introductions, processing the trauma, venting, and making space for tears and anger.

Although this made for an unusual meeting, it makes sense in hindsight. Most of the counselors present had little training in responding to mass trauma and were focused more on providing pro bono services in their private offices than on conducting primary prevention and outreach. What time remained was used for breakout groups to brainstorm on immediate needs and steps the counseling community could take to provide help. At the end of the meeting, a small subgroup agreed to stay behind to attempt to organize a set of initiatives to respond to the needs raised in the breakouts. 

By the time the main meeting broke up, it was late in the evening, and participants, already on edge and dealing with a cascade of calls from clients, were physically and emotionally exhausted. The small group that remained included leaders from the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, an organization dedicated to training and deploying crisis counseling teams, as well as local counselors, agency leaders and a handful of students. This group took the summaries from the breakouts and prioritized several initiatives, including establishing a command center to coordinate the response, a crisis counseling center and a community communications strategy. 

‘Resilient Charlottesville’ comes to life

As the small group meeting began wrapping up, the difficult question of “Who coordinates this?” still needed to be answered. Fortunately, one of our local counseling agencies had a strong communications manager who raised her hand to help. John was on summer break from graduate school and could help organize and manage the logistical aspects of a crisis counseling center. Our community services board’s emergency services leadership offered to help coordinate with other agencies and government offices. A gift from the city arrived in the form of an offer of space in the downtown Charlottesville library, with ample room for a welcome desk, consultations and rest space for counselors. 

By noon the next day, we had a plan in place that we named “Resilient Charlottesville.” We began recruiting pro bono counselors from a list we had developed at the Wednesday meeting. We created a website and were communicating with counselors via the expanded group email list and with other community leaders. The Green Cross offered to deploy teams in the community for assertive outreach, and we gratefully accepted this support. We produced and distributed flyers to post in local businesses and on community buildings, and we opened the crisis counseling center that Friday at the library. This coming together of resources leads us to offer another observation:

Lesson #3: In a crisis, be flexible and open to offers of help from unexpected quarters. You will need a wide range of skills and experience. Take advantage of retirees, students and others who are willing to lend a hand. Community trauma affects counselors, and links to outside resources are essential when local capabilities are overwhelmed.

Our crisis counseling presence remained up and running for two weeks following the violent demonstrations. During that time, volunteer counselors conducted more than 70 pro bono sessions, and our outreach teams made hundreds of contacts on their “counseling by walking around” perambulations of the downtown area. Many of the people we met told us that the mere presence of a counselor (we wore orange vests with clear identification as counselors) provided a calming influence. So much trauma had occurred on the streets that many residents visited the scene of Heather Heyer’s murder to try to process what had taken place. Business owners welcomed the chance to talk with counselors about what they were dealing with. Our counseling presence served as a sign of resilience and hope.

Even as Resilient Charlottesville offered support through crisis counseling, other elements of our coming together as a community were sending down deeper roots. There was anger and sadness that more coordination had not taken place across the public and private sectors prior to the demonstrations. Some of our counselors and their sponsoring agencies committed to bridging these gaps. A communitywide “go-to” website and toll-free hotline, Here to Help, was developed as a clearinghouse for mental health needs. The Virginia Medical Reserve Corps extended its presence and recruited mental health professionals as standby volunteers for future crises. Plans for training and crisis preparation began to take shape.

From victim to survivor

As members of the counseling community came together in various settings to debrief on what we had learned, several themes emerged. One was that crisis counseling skills are a distinct form of intervention, and that without practicing them, these skills can become rusty.

Most counselors spend their days in a consulting room meeting on a predictable schedule with clients they have seen before. Crisis counseling involves outreach, walking the streets and meeting people, often in brief encounters that can help support survivors’ natural resiliency. In their book, Beyond Brief Counseling and Therapy, Jack Presbury, Lennis Echterling and J. Edson McKee remind us that brief and crisis counseling are, at heart, an attitude about change. The World Health Organization recommends psychological first aid training for mental health professionals who might be in a position to help people experiencing traumatic events. The Knowledge Center section of ACA’s website (counseling.org) offers an extensive set of links to resources, training and volunteer opportunities related to trauma and disaster mental health.

We should note that responding to a community crisis is not solely the purview of mental health professionals. We were dismayed to learn that some massage therapists were turned away from the initial organizing meeting after being told it wasn’t for them. A good response takes an “all hands on deck” approach, honoring the multiple ways in which people manage stress and welcoming the inclusion of allied professionals such as massage therapists, body workers, clergy and lay helpers. A comprehensive community response would train allied professionals and lay helpers in psychological first aid and provide multiple avenues for community members to relieve stress and receive support.

It also became obvious that while our marginalized communities were deeply affected by the presence of White supremacist demonstrators, our outreach efforts had not purposefully or effectively extended into these communities. We realize now that forming alliances with religious and community leaders in our Black and other marginalized communities is essential.

We were also chagrined to learn that our local first responders had preexisting arrangements with nonlocal providers of counseling services to support their staff members’ mental health needs. We agreed that our own “internal marketing” in the community needed to be reconsidered to raise the profile of local counselors with public agencies, including our first responders.

From surviving to thriving

The Charlottesville community experienced its own painful transition, from surviving the violence and trauma of Aug. 12, 2017, to establishing an attitude of resolve. As part of that community, the counseling profession had its own time of testing in the form of the one-year anniversary of the violence. Unlike the events of 2017, this anniversary could be anticipated. A lack of organization would be unacceptable. In retrospect, it offered us an (unwelcome) opportunity to test our determination and coordination.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers guidelines in what it calls the “whole community approach” to crisis planning. We took this attitude to heart. This time, there was extensive coordination between local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Medical Reserve Corps, the Virginia Volunteer Health System, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, and assorted law enforcement agencies.

Our local mental health community was involved and engaged in coordinating meetings and gathering resources. We conducted training in psychological first aid and trauma-informed counseling. We also conducted community outreach to marginalized populations through the Boys & Girls Club and had school counselors briefed and standing by to offer their support and assistance. As the date approached, we deployed volunteer counselors, all trained in crisis intervention, in two locations — one in the center of downtown and another just at the edge of the downtown area. Both groups coordinated throughout the day with local officials to provide safe and secure sites for crisis counseling. The community had protocols in place to deal with large numbers of medical and mental health emergencies.

Lesson #4: Community engagement is a year-round form of preparation for crisis. The ACA Code of Ethics directs counselors to advocate, contribute pro bono resources, work effectively in interdisciplinary teams and build new skills. It turns out that these areas are also central to successful crisis planning and management as counselors.

In the end, the first anniversary of the Charlottesville violence was a relatively quiet day, with no injuries and a small number of demonstrators. Thankfully, our preparations were not put to the test. In many ways, this was an exercise in resilience and building pathways to thriving for our counseling community.

Today, we are closer together as a group of professionals than ever before. We recognize our vulnerabilities and are taking steps to prepare, practice and collaborate. We feel closer to our community, not just through one-to-one interaction with our clients, but in the sense of shared responsibility for our safety, shared participation in strengthening our city’s psychological fabric, and shared efforts to advocate for social progress. These are parts of being a counselor that perhaps we had taken for granted prior to the shattering of our illusions.

 

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John Rogers is a board-certified counselor and licensed resident in counseling in Virginia, where he also teaches in the graduate counseling program at Longwood University. He is a doctoral candidate in counseling and supervision at James Madison University. His practice and research interests center on homelessness and marginalization. Contact him at counseling@thehaven.org.

Cynthia Miller is a licensed professional counselor and counselor educator with a private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has been a practicing counselor for almost 20 years, working with adults in university, community and correctional settings. Contact her at cynthiamillerlpc@gmail.com.

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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