“Thou shalt not be a perpetrator, thou shalt not be a victim, and thou shalt never, but never be a bystander.” ― Yehuda Bauer
The sun warmed my body. Blissfully fatigued following several laps around the pool, I stretched out on the chaise lounge chair. I sipped my cool lemonade and haphazardly lifted my phone which had been vibrating endlessly. Who on earth was trying to reach me? I had prepared my clients for weeks regarding my vacation. I had set my away message on my phone. Who could possibly need me right now? My eyes squinted at the list of messages. “Are you ok?” “Where are you? I am worried?” “Please tell me you are safe?!”
My lazy summer mental fog abruptly dissipated as I sat up in my chair and began to read through the barrage of inquiries. What on earth is going on? I quickly tapped my responses. “I am fine. At the beach. What is happening?” I read the responses over and over waiting for the punch line, but there was none. My beloved community of Annapolis joined the ever-growing fraternity of gun violence and those men and women who reported the daily news were the target this time. The Capital Gazette was under attack with several fatalities and multiple injuries.
I have been a counselor for twenty-plus years. I am a volunteer for the American Red Cross disaster mental health team and Maryland Responds Medical Corps. I have been deployed and provided crisis intervention to victims, and offered crisis debriefing to first responders. Professionally, this work is not new to me. However, to watch the devastation and suffering of my community from one hundred miles away was excruciating. I watched as the first responders whom I had brought homemade cookies to during the holidays risked their lives to enter the building under attack. I witnessed people I know being escorted from the building — the same building I had visited a week earlier for an endodontist appointment. I observed the swift and definitive execution of the emergency plan play out on national television. including scenes of the ambulance taking victims to the emergency room where I had served as an on-call counselor for 10 years. These were my people! The agony was palpable even from the safety of the beach. Rumors flooded social media, and I waited for news of missing persons.
I took inventory of my internal status. I am, after all, a therapist. I felt frightened for the families who had to sit with so many unknowns about the well-being of their loved ones. I felt helpless being so far away. I felt angry that we continue to experience this type of violence. Enough is enough! It is past time for counselors to make decisions and act.
Counselors have a unique role following a disaster in that we are called to help heal a community’s trauma. We counsel survivors and families and debrief first responders. We help bring agency back to a community that may feel disempowered and devastated. The safety once experienced, crumbles and we aid in the creation of a new normal.
My first act was to contact Maryland Responds to see if we were going to deploy. The local Warmline — a non-emergency helpline that offers immediate counseling or referral services — had begun advertising grief counseling services and I knew that the first responder employee assistance programs would soon reach out for aid in debriefing the responders. However, like many communities, the Annapolis area is tight-knit, so the traumatic effects of the tragedy would be widespread. One of the local mental health networking groups spearheaded the creation of a list of providers willing to volunteer both medical and mental health services over the next several weeks. Clinicians from all over the county responded, zealous to do their part to help in the recovery effort. As clinicians, we know that initially there are rituals, memorials, vigils and casseroles that remind us of the solidarity of experience in these losses. However, when people attempt to resume their previous lives, they trip over metaphorical landmines that they don’t expect. Counselors can help clients to anticipate and disarm the mines.
On February 27, ACA adopted a resolution supporting and highlighting the role that school counselors and other professional counselors play in addressing the anxiety, stress and trauma students experience after a school shooting. The resolution also calls for adequate federal funding for research into the public health impact of gun violence and evidenced-based strategies for preventing and addressing gun violence.
In an Annals of Epidemiology article published in 2015, researchers Jeffrey W. Swanson, E. Elizabeth McGinty, Seena Fazel, and Vickie M. Mays reviewed research on the relationship between violence and mental illness. They found that the presence of mental illness is not an effective predictive factor for violence against others. Instead, they advise policymakers to focus on evidence-based risk factors such as previous violent behavior. They advocate for “time-sensitive risk assessment for violence as the foundation of evidence-based criteria for prohibiting firearms access, rather than focusing broadly on mental illness diagnoses and a record of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization at any time in one’s life.”
The authors’ conclusions highlight the need to train all mental health providers in violence assessment. The use of evidence-based criteria — rather than a diagnosis of mental illness — to prohibit firearm access requires a change in current policies and procedures. Saying “enough!” in the face of gun violence is neither a partisan statement nor an opposition to the Second Amendment. It’s a call for an end to the death and trauma. Gun violence permeates our society in multiple ways — not just in mass shootings but also through gun-related crime and suicide. Complex issues surround this violence, but there are definite steps we as a society can take such as reexamining gun control policy, demanding further research on predicting violent behavior, addressing insufficient access to mental health care and reducing the stigma attached to seeking care.
As counselors, we are trained to be value-neutral. We support the goals of our clients even when they directly oppose our own beliefs. We offer a non-judgmental presence. Regarding mental health care accessibility and gun violence, we need to dare to have an opinion. We need to know the platforms of our representatives and have their office number on speed dial. We need to use the strength of our collective voices and demand change.
In the wake of the attack, I heard my community’s resounding cry of solidarity with all the victims of gun violence. Naptown Strong! We love you, Annapolis! And just like every other school, church, concert, movie theater and community affected by gun violence, we are striving to put the pieces back together from a horror that will forever inform our narrative. Enough is enough! Prayers and thoughts must be followed with action!
Annapolis and the Capital Gazette will not be defeated by violence. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the staff at the Gazette refused to be silenced. “I can tell you this: We are putting out at damn paper tomorrow,” tweeted reporter Chase Cook. And they did. Let us all be inspired by the courage and the conviction of these journalists.
Resources from ACA relating to gun violence and trauma for, both counselors and consumers: counseling.org/knowledge-center/gun-violence-trauma-resources
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy: and geek therapy. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.