Tag Archives: school shooting

The counselor’s role in ensuring school safety

By Bethany Bray August 24, 2016

Samantha Haviland was a junior and a peer counselor at Columbine High School in April 1999 when two of her fellow students brought weapons to school, killing 12 students and one teacher before dying by suicide.

The massacre at the Littleton, Colorado, high school is often cited as the event that launched an era in which U.S. schools practice lockdown drills as often as fire drills. In less than two decades since, phrases such as active shooter, rampage violence and post-Columbine have become part of the American vernacular.

Haviland, a past president of the Colorado School Counselor Association and director of counseling support services for the Denver Public Schools, doesn’t usually disclose her connection to Columbine to the students with whom she works. But it is undeniably an experience that she still carries with her.

“What it does do is remind me, every day, of the vulnerabilities of our school communities and our students and the need for mental health,” Haviland says. “It is very sad to see that 17 years later, we struggle with the exact same thing — and worse. … What I do see is a lot of heightened awareness from school staff and a lot of fear, both from students and staff. It can be scary to go to work every day with the knowledge that this is now an [issue].”

Today’s reality is that school counselors and school administrators need to have well-crafted crisis plans ready to go. But equally as important, Haviland says, is the attention that school personnel should pay to the smaller, day-to-day issues that affect a school’s safety, from racial microaggressions and bullying to dating and relationship violence.

School counselors need both preventive and reactive tools in their toolboxes, and “there’s no magic wand for any of it,” Haviland asserts.

A visible presence

Violence can be defined as anything that is done with the intent to harm someone else, says Zachary Pietrantoni, a licensed school counselor who just finished his doctorate in counselor education and supervision at Southern Illinois University. In school settings, conversations about safety should take into consideration that violence can be physical, such as fighting, or nonphysical, including aggressive behavior that is verbal, psychological or carried out over social media, Pietrantoni says.

The antidote to school violence — in all its forms — is an inclusive and resilient school environment in which counselors play pivotal roles, say many of the professionals interviewed Branding-Images_lockersfor this article. One key way school counselors can foster a culture of safety is by making themselves a familiar face and ready resource for students, parents and school staff.

“Make yourself the person they turn to,” says Kevin Curtin, an associate professor of counseling at Alfred University in New York state. “Be present, be visible. You want everyone to know that you’re the go-to person.” That might mean helping a parent or colleague to better understand a student’s mental health diagnosis, or talking through a challenging situation regarding a particular student with a teacher, he says.

Although school counselors are part of the leadership in their school buildings, Curtin thinks the word facilitator is a better fit than leader. “Establish a relationship with everyone,” he advises. “You have to work with all the teachers, specialists, parents, the principal and the assistant principal. You need to collaborate effectively with everyone. Make sure you’re a contact point. It’s a unique role. … While you’re not the ultimate boss [in a school], you need to be a leader for everybody.”

School counselors can foster this mindset among students by being highly visible throughout the school, says Curtin, who spent 17 years as a counselor and clinical director at an alternative school in Rockville, Maryland, for students who were identified as being at risk. “You want to go from classroom to classroom during the first week of school every year and introduce yourself,” says Curtin, an American Counseling Association member who is a certified school counselor and licensed mental health counselor. “I used to joke that I should have rollerblades because I was constantly roaming. I was visible. I made sure I knew every student and their families. I wanted to be trusted. … I wanted them to know they could come to me, and I wanted my colleagues to feel the same.”

Haviland says the role of the school counselor is to be a unifying staff member who builds relationships throughout the school building so that everyone feels safe and included. The goal should be to create an environment in which each student has “at least one positive relationship with a staff member. It doesn’t have to be the school counselor. It could be the janitor,” says Haviland, a member of the American School Counselor Association and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, both divisions of ACA.

Carleton Brown, a certified school counselor and counselor educator who researched school rampage violence for his doctoral dissertation, notes that perpetrators of school violence often lash out because they feel it is their only avenue to “be heard,” either by their peers or by society at large. That is one of the reasons, he says, that school counselors should strive to create opportunities for all students to feel heard, including helping them to establish relationships with trusted adults in the building.

“Create a sense of belonging [for students], a sense of ‘I belong here at this school’ — a personal stake in the school and the school environment,” says Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and past president of the Arkansas Counseling Association, a state branch of ACA.

The importance of staff-student relationships also comes into play in a phenomenon that law enforcement officials term leakage, Brown says. This is when a student clues a friend or classmate in to his or her plans for violence, such as telling the peer to stay home or avoid a specific area of the school on a certain day. If that peer is comfortable with a school staff member, he or she is more likely to come forward and report any potential threat, says Brown, a member of ACA.

The simple truth is that students always know of goings-on in the school that staff members don’t, notes Mark Lepore, a professor at Clarion University in Pennsylvania who was a school counselor for a decade. “When you ask teachers if bullying is [happening] in their classrooms, you’ll most likely get a ‘no.’ But if you ask students, they can tell you where it occurs, who is involved, how often it happens,” says Lepore, an ACA member. “It’s just this world that students are privy to, but we, as adults, miss it.”

To that end, school counselors can play a key role in making connections and building rapport with — and between — students, Lepore says. For example, counselors can help teachers facilitate weekly check-ins, in which a small amount of class time (for example, 15 minutes every Friday) is spent on a safety topic. This might include a lesson about social-emotional skills or an open-ended discussion about how safe students are feeling, he says.

“When [teachers and classrooms] check in every week, it seems so simple, but it makes a difference,” says Lepore, a licensed professional counselor and licensed clinical social worker. “Having this meeting every week sends a message to students that [staff] do care and issues can be talked about. There’s a lot of opportunity for counselors to be a part of that process.”

Pietrantoni, a national certified counselor and ACA member, worked as an elementary school counselor at a Title I school in Topeka, Kansas, where a program called Cool Tools was used. Students were introduced to a different “tool” each week involving a positive social behavior or characteristic, such as how to make friends, how to ask another child to play or how to be respectful or friendly. For example, one week the tool was trustworthiness, so the entire school focused on behaviors that demonstrated and fostered that characteristic. Each classroom would discuss that week’s tool and engage in role-playing. School counselors put up posters about the tools throughout the school and visited classrooms to review the week’s lesson with students.

Reaching those who are ‘at risk’

School counselors can also play an important role in ensuring school safety by working with teachers and other school staff to identify and reach out to students who are struggling. This includes students who are often truant or absent, have behavioral issues or are socially isolated.

For example, Lepore says, a school counselor or other staff member can be “assigned” a struggling student to interact with on a daily basis. The counselor or staff member would check in with the student at some point each school day, such as during lunch or as students enter the school in the morning.

During his time as a school counselor, Curtin regularly performed these check-ins with certain students. In some cases, the meetings were scheduled, such as when he ate lunch with a student or asked a student to stop by his office each day before lunch. Other times, he simply made a point of being in the hallway at a certain time of day when he knew the student needed to pass through. Regardless, he made sure to interact with the student daily.

“I used to have a big jar of candy [in my office],” Curtin remembers. “It’s just something little, but one piece of candy, right after lunch, if a student was meeting a goal. Something as little as that [can provide] positive reinforcement.”

As an elementary and middle school counselor in suburban Pittsburgh, Lepore facilitated peer mediation programs and an initiative called Circle of Friends, which grouped students who possessed healthy social skills with students who needed to work on those skills. First, parental permission was obtained. Then these “circles of friends” were grouped together for lunch or school events such as field trips. The interactions helped curb negative behaviors and made struggling students feel included, Lepore says.

“Teachers are already so overworked,” he adds. “They often tune stuff out when asked to do more, but if they can see results, [programming] will be embraced. It’s finding the right program and the right fit, and [also] involving parents the whole way.”

Service learning and volunteer projects are also effective tools for helping students experience a sense of belonging and community, Lepore says, and this can curtail potential problems down the road. For example, students in Lepore’s school wrote cards and letters to the New York City Police Department after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The police department responded and sent officers to visit Lepore’s school. What started out as a gesture of thanks became an unforgettable experience for many students, he says.

“Service learning is a really great vehicle for changing behavior and promoting [student] engagement. … Sense of belonging is a key factor in how students will achieve. Does a student feel they belong? If not, what can we do to fix that?” Lepore says.

Fostering a safe environment

The approaches school counselors take to cultivate a safe environment must be tailored to their schools’ unique needs, Haviland says, and the first step in that direction is assessment. She suggests that counselors create and administer student surveys with questions related to bullying and other safety indicators, such as whether students feel they have a teacher or other school staff member they can talk to when needed.

After reviewing the responses, counselors can help their schools create programs to meet the needs that students identified in the survey. This might range from concerns about dating violence among the student body to a need for additional extracurricular activities for students to get involved in, Haviland says.

Haviland recommends that school counselors administer safety surveys at their respective schools a minimum of once each year because the makeup of the student body and the perceived needs are constantly changing. “Have a pulse on the needs of your students at all times,” she emphasizes.

Pietrantoni says that forging partnerships with community groups such as nonprofit or advocacy organizations, churches and counseling agencies can be conducive to addressing specific needs in a school. For example, if bullying of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is an issue within the school, the counselor might facilitate a partnership with a community LGBT advocacy group to organize a schoolwide assembly focused on equality or to establish a gay-straight alliance, Pietrantoni suggests.

Another avenue for counselors to monitor the pulse of their schools is to create advisory councils that include students, parents and school staff, Pietrantoni says. This approach allows school counselors to gain multiple perspectives on issues going on in the school and the community at large.

“Not relying on one perspective will help broaden [a school counselor’s] program and perspective. This will give you eyes and ears in different areas,” says Pietrantoni, who begins a position as an assistant professor of counselor education at New Jersey City University this fall.

Crisis intervention and threat assessment

Creating and maintaining a safe, inclusive school culture requires that school counselors take a multilevel approach. At the staff and administrative level, this might include organizing teacher trainings, collaborating with a school resource officer and spearheading parent outreach. In working directly with students, it could range from organizing schoolwide programs on social-emotional behavior to providing group counseling with students who are at risk. As a whole, “school counselors are the leaders in creating a healthy environment,” Haviland says.

One key piece of the puzzle for Curtin was ensuring that his therapeutic team and school staff were trained in crisis intervention. The training helped staff de-escalate potentially volatile situations, such as when students became frustrated over something and were “about to lose it,” he says. Curtin worked at an alternative school where many of the students had emotional or behavioral disorders, so those situations were relatively common, he says.

The crisis training not only helped school staff learn how and when to intervene but also taught them empathic listening skills, says Curtin, who facilitated the trainings.

Another important skill to foster among school staff is the ability to identify warning signs that might indicate a student needs extra attention, Curtin says. These signs may include behavioral problems such as physical fighting or destruction of property, bullying or being bullied, suicidal tendencies, drug use, social withdrawal or isolation, impulsiveness, expressions of violence in writings or drawings, and outbursts of uncontrolled anger.

“Counselors are the front line in being able to identify potential risks and train others,” says Brian Van Brunt, executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association. He says all school staff, including teaching and nonteaching positions such as sports coaches, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and janitorial staff, should be given training in crisis intervention and mental health first aid.

“Nonclinicians are key. The same people you’d want to know CPR are the people you’d want to be trained [in mental health first aid],” Van Brunt says. Why? Because it’s equally likely that a student will become violent or suicidal on a school bus or on the playground as in a classroom, he says. When trained properly, these “first responders” can intervene effectively to stop potentially violent situations from escalating. They can also refer students who need counseling.

Van Brunt, who holds a doctorate in counseling education and supervision, started his career as a private practitioner. He eventually became the director of a college counseling center before moving into the specialty of threat assessment. As he explains, threat assessment is different from the typical mental health evaluations that counselors do, which usually result in a diagnosis and treatment plan. With threat assessment, a practitioner determines how likely a person is to repeat a violent incident or follow through on a threat that he or she has made. In school settings, this often comes into play when administrators are deciding whether to allow a student to return to school after being suspended for a violent or behavioral incident.

“You need to get to the underlying question of whether that person is a danger to someone else. … You need to determine whether or not the person is a risk,” says Van Brunt, the author of Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness, which is published by ACA. “[Threat assessment] is asking very different questions than a mental health assessment.”

Van Brunt presented a threat assessment case study at ACA’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal. The case involved a female student whose bra strap was snapped by a male classmate in the hallway. In response, the female stabbed the perpetrator in the arm with a pencil.

Both individual and systemic issues need to be considered when conducting a threat assessment, Van Brunt emphasizes. In this case, the female student was surrounded by a group of male students in a dark hallway when the incident occurred.

“Often we need to look at both the individual and the community and ask questions about how we reduce this behavior going forward,” says Van Brunt, a past president of the American College Counseling Association, a division of ACA. “Consider the circumstance. Was this a reasonable reaction or not? … Why was the hallway dark? Why were these students left unsupervised?”

In this situation, a counselor should also consider — and possibly introduce school programming focused on — the bigger, systemic issue of how the student body understands (or doesn’t understand) personal and sexual boundaries, Van Brunt adds.

“This is where I think counselors have such a wonderful, diverse [skill set], building rapport and understanding the issue of cognitive distortion, how we understand things, how we put things together,” he says. “A lot of these [threat assessment] cases center on how people are thinking about things, which is really what counselors do best — helping people think differently when they choose a path [and] getting them to the solutions they want to go to.”

Brown agrees, noting the difference between making a threat and posing a threat. He suggests a team approach can be helpful when conducting threat assessments in schools. In addition to school administrators and school counselors, it can be beneficial to include school resource officers, law enforcement professionals and mental health counselors from the community on these teams. Having multiple viewpoints is vital, he says.

Determining whether a student poses a threat “is difficult for one person to answer,” asserts Brown. “My suggestion, when it comes to threat assessment, is to look at it from a holistic, integrative and multiteam way.”

Although it is important for school staff to look for warning signs of potential violence, Brown emphasizes that there is no “all-in-one checklist” of behavioral cues to monitor. He points to a 1999 FBI report by Mary Ellen O’Toole that analyzed 18 different U.S. school shootings.

“One response to the pressure for action [after a violent incident] may be an effort to identify the next shooter by developing a ‘profile’ of the typical school shooter,” wrote O’Toole, a former senior profiler for the FBI. “This may sound like a reasonable preventive measure, but in practice, trying to draw up a catalogue or ‘checklist’ of warning signs to detect a potential school shooter can be shortsighted, even dangerous. Such lists, publicized by the media, can end up unfairly labeling many nonviolent students as potentially dangerous or even lethal. In fact, a great many adolescents who will never commit violent acts will show some of the behaviors or personality traits included on the list.”

Instead, Brown suggests that school counselors take a holistic approach and consider the wider circumstance of a student’s full personality, home life, family dynamics, social situation and past interactions with peers and staff when assessing the potential for future violence.

“What research says is [that warning signs] are all a factor, but they are not the sole factor,” Brown says. “Some of the students who committed these acts [school shootings] were bullied or they were the bully. … That doesn’t mean that every student who is bullied will commit these acts.”

Curtin agrees. “It is important to understand that warning signs should be viewed in context. They do not necessarily mean that the young person is predisposed to commit violence,” he says. “Instead, I try to convey the notion [to graduate school counseling students] that warning signs are an opportunity for school counselors to check out and address any concerns or issues the child might have in order to determine an appropriate intervention.”

This is especially important to keep in mind in situations in which students have trauma in their backgrounds, Lepore says. “It’s changing the focus from looking at a student [and asking], ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What have you been through?’” he says.

School counselors “have a unique opportunity to know the students, their families and their unique situations,” Lepore continues. “We have more information [about a student’s background] than the teachers or administration have, and that can be of use for the betterment of the students and the school.”

Resiliency and response

Counselors are also key players in a school’s response to trauma or violence. This could involve any number of scenarios that affect the school community, from the death of one of its students to an act of violence (such as a shooting) in the local community or an act of mass violence that happened elsewhere but is widely reported in the news. Depending on the situation, it can be beneficial for school counselors to go classroom to classroom to discuss the incident and answer students’ questions about grief, self-care and other mental health issues, Brown says.

School counselors can also orchestrate “stations” throughout the school — safe places, such as the library, where students can take a break and talk to a staff person — following a traumatic or violent incident that affects the student body, Brown says. In such circumstances, counselors may need to meet with teachers and administrators to discuss the importance of temporarily relaxing school rules, postponing tests and altering academic schedules to enable students to freely seek the help they need, he adds.

If a traumatic event affects a large swath of the study body, the school’s counselor may want to arrange for additional counselors from the community or other schools to come on-site to provide services to the students. Likewise, if a particular class or student group is affected, it can be helpful to have a counselor or other mental health professional sit in with that group all day to offer support, Brown says.

As with threat assessment, school crisis response is most effective when it involves a team, Brown says. He suggests these teams include the school’s counselors, principals and administrators, teachers, other staff relevant to the situation and, in some cases, parents.

“The team will assess ‘how do we handle this situation?’ You want to prepare and respond in a way that makes the students feel safe, feel heard [and feel] that we’re not just going on with everyday life. You need to give students an opportunity to talk about it and mourn,” Brown says.

“The team [dynamic] is very powerful [in crisis response],” he adds. “It’s not fair for a school counselor to feel that all of this is on his or her shoulders. … The school counselor shouldn’t be the sole person responsible for the emotional welfare of a school.”

Parents as part of the safety equation

A significant amount of research shows a connection between student achievement and parents who are involved and engaged. According to the counselors interviewed for this article, a similar connection exists between parental engagement and safe school environments.

“Parents are key players in your schoolwide approach [for safety],” Curtin says. “Bring them in for meetings. Include them in planning. Empower them to help.”

Curtin suggests that school counselors include parents on any team that creates or revises a violence prevention or school improvement plan. Counselors should also keep in touch and work with their schools’ parent-teacher organizations and other parent groups, he says.

The driving philosophy is that a safe school is born out of community, Curtin says. His advice to school counselors: “Build relationships, be present, have good prevention programs and know the warning signs [for violence]. Help the at-risk and be there for them.”

 

 

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School safety and violence statistics

  • In 2014, there were more than 850,000 nonfatal victimizations (including assaults, thefts and other incidents) among students ages 12 to 18 at schools across the United States.
  • About 7 percent of U.S. high school students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon such as a gun or knife on school property in 2013.
  • In 2013, approximately 22 percent of U.S. students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school during the school year. Females reported higher percentages of being made fun of, being called names or insulted, being the subject of rumors or being excluded from activities on purpose. A higher percentage of males reported being pushed, shoved or tripped at school.
  • In 2013, about 8 percent of U.S. high school students reported being involved in a physical fight on school property during the past year.
  • In 2013, approximately 7 percent of U.S. students ages 12 to 18 reported being cyberbullied during the school year. A higher overall percentage of female students reported being victims of cyberbullying.
  • In the 2013-2014 school year, about 88 percent of U.S public schools had a written plan for response procedures in the event of a shooting; 70 percent of those schools with a plan had drilled students on the use of the plan.

— Source: The National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/

 

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To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

Counselors play part in Orlando crisis response

By Bethany Bray July 8, 2016

On June 12, America woke up to the terrible news that dozens of people had been killed and injured in a spree of violence perpetrated by a single shooter at a popular nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Within 24 hours, local counselors began circulating a spreadsheet, asking practitioners to sign up for shifts to offer therapy and support to victims, their families and community members at several locations around Orlando. The spreadsheet had more than 650 practitioner names on it within a few days, says Kristin Page, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) who offered crisis counseling in the days and weeks that have followed the tragedy.

“It was truly a community effort. People were willing to pitch in as needed,” says Page, a faculty member in the Department of Professional Counseling at Webster University in Orlando.

“I wish I could share the beauty of the counseling community in Orlando,” agreed Shainna Ali, president of the Florida Association of Multicultural Counseling and Development, and one of the many who provided crisis counseling in Orlando after the shooting. “Instantly following the [shooting] there was a surge of willing and able counselors ready to meet the needs of the Rainbow heartcommunity. I was able to see our counseling values in action, live in front of my eyes. As hundreds signed up for volunteer shifts, my heart was warmed as I noticed familiar names, peers, colleagues and past students. The counseling community has certainly banded together and is presently championing social justice in Orlando. I never have been more proud to be a counselor in the City Beautiful.”

The June 12 incident at Pulse nightclub in Orlando is being called the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Forty-nine people were killed and 53 were wounded.

The first 911 calls came from the packed nightclub just after 2 a.m. After an initial barrage of gunfire, the shooter, 29 year-old Omar Mateen, barricaded himself in a bathroom with other clubgoers. The standoff came to an end just after 5 a.m., when law enforcement breeched the premises and killed Mateen in an exchange of gunfire.

“The community as a whole is grieving. [The shooting] has taken a mental health toll on people here in Orlando in various ways,” says Page. “This really hit home for so many community members – even people who didn’t know anyone who was at Pulse are finding themselves struggling, crying all the time.”

Following the shooting, many who came to counseling “just wanted to sit with someone and talk – be safe, and be heard,” says Page.

“In the initial days and weeks after the attack, we were doing a lot more listening [than structured therapy]. Just letting people express how they’re feeling is important, getting those feelings out there,” says Page.

The ad-hoc group of volunteer practitioners met with people at churches and other community locations, talking with victims, friends and family of victims and community members. They also saw first responders, such as emergency dispatchers, police officers and others who were involved as the shooting unfolded.

Many people expressed feelings of grief, sadness, denial, anger or survivor guilt, says Page, as well as general unease and feeling unsafe.

Through crisis counseling, Page says she focused on the message that feelings of grief and sadness are natural in the wake of trauma, she says.

“So they’re not thinking ‘this is just me’,” she explains. “The intensity of the feelings is very real to them. We [counselors] are letting them know that this is a process, and normal in the wake of something traumatic or the occurrence of a grief event.”

“Overall, the way the community has come together already shows me that we’re going to survive this. We’re going to be OK,” says Page. “The wonderful efforts on local therapists part have just stunned me. I have seen so many people come together. But this has taken a mental health toll on so many in Orlando. We will continue to need services. This is something we’re going to have to build together.”

Grief over the Pulse shooting was felt acutely by both the LGBT community, as Pulse is a popular gay nightclub, and the Latino community, as the violence occurred during a Latin-themed night at the venue.

Counselors should understand that “a safe place for the LGBT community was attacked” on June 12, says Ami Hooper, a LMHC in Tampa and leader in the Florida branch of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling (ALGBTIC). “Our LGBTQ clients need to know they are still safe and [should] be allowed an opportunity to process these events from various perspectives as the realizations come to them. I want counselors to know that like in all times of grief, you don’t have to have the answers. Often, there are no answers. Only that the best approach is to offer a safe space for clients to come as they are, when they desire. Not all of those impacted will seek counseling immediately, but [will] rather wait some time to seek help.”

The Pulse shooting took place during a week when several other traumatic events shook the Orlando community, including an alligator attack that killed a toddler on the Walt Disney World property and a murder-suicide at a rock concert.

Candace Crawford, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida (MHACF), says her organization’s mental health referral service has seen calls increase by roughly 20 to 25 percent since the Pulse shooting.

MHACF, an advocacy and mental health support nonprofit in Orlando, is working on creating a comprehensive plan to offer post-crisis counseling services for at least another 12 months, says Crawford.

“The crisis intervention is great for right now, but there will be many people for whom that is not sufficient,” says Crawford. “What we’re looking at is the delayed onset of trauma. There’s so much to be done for families who are attending to the immediate needs, moment by moment, day by day. There will be a time when they will be impacted, [and] they will all the sudden be unable to get out of bed … We want to be there to provide that safety net for those who have made it through for a time, but are impacted.”

After the Pulse shooting, Orlando city leadership organized a 24-hour response center at the Camping World Stadium, the downtown venue where the Citrus Bowl is played. More than 50 agencies collaborated to provide support services – everything from help with funeral arrangements to finding out-of-town relatives a place to stay.

Crawford said the community-wide response following the shooting has been “remarkable.”

In the week after the shooting, Crawford said she received a group email sent from Orlando’s LGBT community center, asking for help finding an apartment for one of the shooting victims as they were being released from the hospital.

“Within two minutes [someone replied and] they had an apartment for this person. Two minutes. That just shows you the kind of response we’ve been getting from this community,” says Crawford.

 

 

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The Florida Counseling Association, the American Counseling Association’s branch in the Sunshine State, kicked into high gear on June 12. In the days and weeks that have followed the Pulse shooting, the association has sent out regular communications and social media posts connecting members with resources and information as well as calls for volunteers to join the Orlando-area crisis counseling efforts.

“We are incredibly thankful for our local counselors who quickly came to assist and help those in need, and we are continuing to remain in constant communication with our contacts in Orlando, FCA President Michelle Bradham-Cousar wrote in an email to Counseling Today. “We have sent out various communications to our counselors in order to secure an abundance of counselors for constant rotation and to provide for the needs of the Orlando community.”

 

In their own words

We asked several counselors from FCA who have been involved in Orlando’s trauma response to share some thoughts on the situation in Orlando.

 

“Counselors outside of Florida should be mindful about how clients feelings, thoughts and behaviors may be directly or indirectly related to the [Pulse] shooting, although they do not live in Florida. Providing them with the support they need and letting everyone know you stand with Orlando, even in a small way, can make a huge difference to help the nation heal. Counselors can prevent this from happening again by providing education, advocacy and clinical services to and on behalf of marginalized groups to reduce the effects of mental health issues and inequality from contributing to future incidents.

… When people worldwide go back to their regular lives and the media moves on to other stories, people all over will still be suffering from the shooting massacre just like the victims, families and community members of similar [past] tragedies are still suffering or were re-traumatized by this event. [They] will still be grieving, and trauma symptoms will emerge or continue for victims, their families and first responders, including professional counselors.”

— Letitia Browne-James, a LMHC who provided crisis counseling in Orlando

 

“As counselors, it is essential that we remember to be kind to others and most importantly, to be kind to ourselves. Tragedy can occur at any point in time and our ability to heal and process difficult emotions arising from a difficult event is easier to endure with supportive individuals at our side. Enhancing safety for the LGBT community and educating the public regarding awareness on mental illness — more specifically anxiety and depression, among others — will be the first step in helping our communities prepare for future tragedies … Although individuals around the globe have not directly experienced the calamitous event in Orlando, they are still impacted and are in need of comfort and support from caring individuals. Counselors worldwide are subject to compassion fatigue and may also be indirectly impacted by this senseless tragedy.”

— Courtney Martensen of Jacksonville, president-elect of the Florida Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling

 

“At the present time, there is heightened energy and willingness to assist. However, individuals are still in shock and absorbing the news. It is important to remember that when considering traumatic events, self-awareness to mental health needs often occurs much later than the actual event. Thus, it is important to consider that realization and subsequent need for counseling may likely occur in waves following the Pulse tragedy.

… The traumatic influence of this tragedy influences individuals within and beyond Orlando. Counselors should be well aware of the pervasive impact of this event. Beyond clients, individuals who may be affected yet not enrolled in counseling services may seek solace in a counselor who may be a family member, friend or acquaintance. Counselors should be prepared to provide these individuals with the gift of presence and be prepared to provide clinical resources and referrals.

To do your part in standing against such acts of violence, counselors should take a moment to consider what their counseling identity means to them. Beyond specialty and training, counselors should consider what advocacy means to them and how this looks for them. Counselors should be propelled to action to stand upon their values and tenets of counselor identity.”

— Shainna Ali, president of the Florida Association of Multicultural Counseling Development, who provided crisis counseling in Orlando

 

 

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Find more information and resources by visiting:

 

The Florida Counseling Association at flacounseling.org

The Mental Health Association of Central Florida at mhacf.org

ACA’s page on disaster mental health: counseling.org/knowledge-center/trauma-disaster

The American School Counselor Association page on helping kids during a crisis: bit.ly/29A8Nr0

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) page on mass violence: bit.ly/1M4yJBi

 

From Counseling Today:

Counselor addresses self-care, guilt in the wake of Orlando shooting

After Orlando: Helping others, helping ourselves

When tragedy hits close to home

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

After Orlando: Helping others, helping ourselves

By Laura R. Shannonhouse June 22, 2016

In the wake of the recent shooting disaster in Orlando, we find ourselves faced with the difficult task of moving forward with purpose and hope, both as individuals and as a people.  While we may not have been directly touched by this event, or we may have been personally immune to such tragedies in our own past, disasters like this one may feel omnipresent and inescapable in today’s media rich culture. This is especially true now, since the nature of this photo-1463797987952-208b34e8e887particular event was incited by hate towards a specific group, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, which has been under a perennial struggle for acceptance.

 

There are many ways to directly help the victims and their families, but from my perspective as a counselor educator who researches crisis, disasters and cultural issues, I would like to share three thoughts as to how all of us can intentionally focus on the future: helping others, helping ourselves and ensuring that them and me are instead us.

 

I am so heartened by the outpouring of love for those who were affected and the political resolve for doing what we can to ensure that such tragedies become far more rare. In terms of the literature on disaster response, I would say that we are in the “honeymoon” phase of disaster, characterized by community cohesion and shared resolve. Unfortunately, research shows that this period is only temporary, usually lasting a few weeks, and is followed by disillusionment. Eventually, survivors will realize that there are limits to the assistance available. Those that were injured or lost loved ones will have to go on with rebuilding their lives. The universal calls to action and justice may be met with the reality that institutions often change slowly, if at all. A painful reminder of this can be seen in the heartfelt essay from the mother of one of the Sandy Hook victims, “Orlando, I Am Sorry Our Tragedy Wasn’t Enough to Save Your Loved Ones” (written by Nelba Márquez-Greene, a licensed marriage and family therapist and mother of a child who died in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut). So, for my first thought, I challenge you to maintain your resolve and support through the impending disillusionment.

 

In the months and years to come, those affected will face anniversaries of the tragedy and trigger events such as missed birthdays. The strongest protection against disillusionment is resilience. If you are in the position to help a survivor or someone affected, challenge yourself to be a point of resilience for that person for as long as you can. That being said, resist the urge to parachute in, and if you feel compelled to respond to someone that you don’t personally know, be sure to do it as part of an organized response effort. Also remember to act within your own scope of care as a friend, counselor or human. For a good article on how to respond, I would suggest Jamie Aten’s recent piece in the Washington Post, “Tips for helping a loved one after a tragedy, from a Christian disaster expert.” And, if you are now calling for political change, don’t stop until that change is realized.

 

As a helping professional that has worked with trauma survivors and responders, I have seen many times how those not personally affected by crisis may yet still be touched. The literature is full of terms such as vicarious traumatization, secondary traumatic stress (STS), compassion fatigue and burnout. All of these constructs describe how bystanders and responders to disaster can themselves have real physical and emotional reactions. STS can result from witnessing (directly or indirectly) a traumatic event, whereas burnout results from repeated and prolonged exposure to stress. The media will be full of vivid descriptions of the event, and it’s likely [that] continuous coverage will keep us on alert. Daniel Antonius condensed much of the recent literature on this phenomenon after the 2015 San Bernardino shooting in his article, “How the media-related ‘contagion effect’ after terror attacks impacts our mental health.” Consequently, my second thought is to protect yourself from the vicarious traumatization that you may experience from our 24 hour news cycle and practice self-care.

 

If you are more closely connected to the Orlando event, either because of some prior life experience with trauma or because you closely identify with the targeted group, then I would urge you to be on guard for common stress reactions. The list of possible symptoms is long and includes changes in emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical and spiritual domains. If several of those listed symptoms look like they apply to you, then do the following:

  • Unplug – turn off the TV and social media
  • Do what normally helps you feel better (e.g. exercise, listen to music, be creative or routine, spend time with friends, etc.). For a longer list, check out the Department of Health and Human Services’ self-help guide, “Dealing with the Effects of Trauma.”
  • Consider pursuing mental health care. As a licensed counselor and trainer of new counselors, I definitely believe in my profession’s power to help those that are struggling.  There is no shame in asking for help, and there are often low-cost resources available in your community.

 

Since this shooting was, effectively, a hate crime, my final thought is one regarding empathy: live the African concept of ubuntu, or “I am because we are.” The construct of empathy is core to professional counseling (for a three minute visual summary, consider watching Brené Brown on Empathy). In my counseling skills classes, we often talk about “getting in the well” and genuinely connecting with others. Those are good clinical skills, but for those of us that aren’t in Orlando and aren’t directly interacting with someone personally affected by the shooting, it isn’t possible to truly show our empathy. Instead, we can ensure that we hold empathy close as a personal virtue in how we relate to others, especially those different from ourselves in beliefs or worldview. In my travels to Southern Africa on research projects and clinical outreaches, I’ve found that the Bantu word ubuntu truly captures this internalized empathy. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “My humanity is caught up, and inextricably bound up, in yours … A person is a person through other persons …  A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others [and] does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

 

In the wake of the recent horrific events in Orlando, I pray that we may all show love for each other, take care of ourselves and remember that I am because we are.

 

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If you are in need of immediate crisis counseling, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

 

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Laura R. Shannonhouse

Laura R. Shannonhouse

Laura R. Shannonhouse is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), American Counseling Association member and assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Contact her at lshannonhouse@gsu.edu

 

ACA Conference keynote: Understanding nurture, nature key to violence prevention

By Bethany Bray April 1, 2016

 

What drives people to violence? Is it nature or nurture?

Jeremy Richman suggests the answer to this age-old question should be “yes, of course it is.”

Richman, a scientist and the father of a child who died in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, delivered the opening keynote address this morning at the American Counseling Association 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal. Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, co-founded the Avielle Foundation three days after the Sandy Hook shooting to honor their 6 year-old, Avielle Rose, who died in the tragedy with 19 of her young classmates and six adult staff members. The Connecticut-based nonprofit has a goal of using brain health research to prevent violence.

In the U.S. there is, statistically, one suicide every 14 minutes, one rape every 6.6 minutes and an act of violent crime every 27 seconds, Richman says.

Richman_3

Photos by B. Bray/Counseling Today

A number of factors – from access to firearms or environmental toxins, such as secondhand smoke, to childhood violence, traumatic brain injury or poor nutrition – have been found to contribute to violence, says Richman.

At the same time, the human brain is “like a muscle,” with an amazing capacity to change, regenerate and heal throughout its entire lifetime, says Richman.

“We are amazingly complex organisms,” he says. “You can teach an old dog new tricks — it’s just a lot more difficult.”

Preventing violence is more than creating an absence of risk, Richman says. The job of counselors is to help lower the risk factors mentioned above, while also fostering protective factors, including empathy, compassion and the ability to identify and control emotions.

Connecting to one another also key to violence prevention. Humans have evolved to live in groups; connection is part of being human, Richman says.

We are all responsible for the health of ourselves, our families and our communities, Richman contends.

“To be human means to be humane,” Richman says. “It’s only imagination that will set us free to make tomorrow better.”

 

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Learn more about Jeremy Richman’s work with the Avielle Foundation at aviellefoundation.org

 

Related reading: See Counseling Today’s profile of Richman: wp.me/p2BxKN-491

 

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ACA’s 2016 conference, held in partnership with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, runs through April 3.
See more photos of ACA’s 2016 Conference and Expo at flickr.com/photos/23682700@N04/

 

Interested in Live Streaming the 2016 Conference to earn 15 CEs? Go to counseling.org/conference/montreal-aca-2016/livestreaming
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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

When tragedy hits close to home

By Lynne Shallcross July 24, 2015

Aurora, Colorado. Fort Hood, Texas. Virginia Tech. The Washington Navy Yard. And, most recently, Charleston, South Carolina. Each of these places transitioned from being a name on a map to an instant reminder of the devastating aftermath of mass violence. Another is Sandy Hook, the TragedyNewtown, Connecticut, elementary school where shooter Adam Lanza killed 26 people, including 20 children, in December 2012.

In a report published last year, the FBI found that mass shootings in the United States have risen dramatically in recent years. In a study of 160 active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, the agency stated that an average of 6.4 incidents happened each year between 2000 and 2006. Between 2007 and 2013, that average rose to 16.4 incidents each year.

Deb Del Vecchio-Scully is the clinical recovery leader of the Newtown Recovery and Resiliency Team, formed out of a $7.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to bolster the Connecticut town’s mental health recovery and community resiliency in the wake of the shooting. According to Del Vecchio-Scully, this is the first time that a DOJ grant has been awarded specifically to provide mental health services following school-based violence.

When the grant was being written, Del Vecchio-Scully says, it was nearly impossible to gauge what Newtown’s needs would be in the months and years ahead. “There’s no road map,” she says, adding that the tragedy was unique because of the age of the children who were murdered and the impact the event had worldwide.

“What I’ve really come to understand about trauma is that in the aftermath of tragedy, regardless of how it happened — if it’s natural tragedy, if it’s violence — the reactions are extraordinarily complicated,” says Del Vecchio-Scully, a member of the American Counseling Association and the executive director of the Connecticut Counseling Association, a branch of ACA.

Since 9/11, psychological first aid has become the preferred modality suggested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for use in the immediate aftermath of a disaster such as a mass shooting, says J. Barry Mascari, an associate professor and chair of the Counselor Education Department at Kean University in New Jersey. He explains that three core actions are involved in psychological first aid: protect, direct and connect. Protect survivors from further vulnerability, direct them to other services and connect them with their families and communities.

Counselors should think about that concept in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Del Vecchio-Scully says. People’s basic needs must be met first, and the type of event will determine what those needs are — financial, social, psychological, emotional or practical.

Traditional counseling treatment and interventions are not part of psychological first aid. The goal of counseling is often to help people change, Mascari points out, but the goal in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is to help people get back to normal, which is the objective of psychological first aid. “You don’t want to start bringing in your other bag of tricks because [psychological first aid is] not treatment,” says Mascari, a member of ACA who is a co-editor with Jane Webber of the forthcoming book Disaster Mental Health Counseling: A Guide to Preparing and Responding, due to be published by the ACA Foundation next year.

Psychological first aid is also based on the recognition that individuals involved in a mass tragedy are experiencing normal reactions to an abnormal event, and the majority of people will return to normal in time, Mascari says.

Wait until called

After the events of 9/11, the United States learned one lesson in particular, Mascari says, “and that was that we weren’t prepared as a country to respond to these kinds of events.”

In the years since, individual states and the federal government have developed better-organized plans for responding to various types of disasters, including events of mass violence, Mascari says. Today, the response includes a hierarchy of those in charge and standards for survivor care.

Yet something that can still complicate the response to a tragic event is the influx of what Mascari calls “SUVs,” or spontaneous uninvited volunteers. “It was very clear both after the hurricane [Katrina] in New Orleans and after 9/11 that mental health professionals showed up expecting to do therapy with people and, in many cases, could have done more harm than good,” he says.

Del Vecchio-Scully also witnessed this after the school shootings in Newtown. “Communities can be overwhelmed by well-meaning helpers in the aftermath of a mass violence event, just as they are after a natural disaster,” she says. “Out of the goodness of people’s hearts, they want to help, and communities get flooded by individuals who may not have the training. Newtown was flooded by many whose hearts were in the right places but [who] did not really have the expertise to be doing what they were attempting to do.”

“You never want to be an SUV,” Mascari advises his colleagues in the counseling profession. “If you’re not deployed through an organization, you shouldn’t be there, because what happens is that you contribute to the disaster rather than help mitigate it.”

Counselors who are interested in assisting after a tragedy should start by seeking training beforehand to become an American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer, Del Vecchio-Scully says. Among other places, the training is offered each year at the ACA Conference & Expo.

Mascari agrees that counselors should first get trained as disaster mental health volunteers and never self-deploy. He advises connecting with one of the responding organizations, such as the respective state mental health organization or the American Red Cross, to help in the aftermath of a disaster.

According to Mascari, New Jersey was the first state — about a decade ago — to develop a disaster response crisis counselor program. It uses a formal certification process for the state’s disaster crisis response workforce. Other states have since followed suit, using New Jersey’s model to create similar programs, he says.

Finding a new normal

People are often resilient in the face of disaster, says Daniel Linnenberg, an assistant professor of counseling in the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. “However, it takes a long time for them to go from being a victim of an event to a survivor of an event to a ‘thriver’ of an event,” adds Linnenberg, an ACA member who teaches a course on crisis counseling and disaster mental health and is also a disaster mental health volunteer with the American Red Cross and in his home county in New York.

“There will always be that ‘hole’ of that event within them,” he continues. “But, generally, people go beyond that and sort of come to what they refer to as a new normal.” Still, Linnenberg says it’s important to “remember that the event may only take seconds, but the recovery time takes years.”

That process of building resilience can be aided by various factors, the most important of which is social support, Linnenberg says. For example, when people have loved ones around them to lean on, that can foster resilience. Possessing a sense of optimism, having meaning and purpose in life, and accepting that we don’t have control over the world can also foster resilience, he says.

One way that counselors can assist survivors in building social support is through peer groups, such as the one Linnenberg helped establish in the wake of a tragedy in Webster, New York. Linnenberg had been providing counseling in the aftermath of an ambush shooting of firefighters that took place in the Rochester suburb in December 2012. The peer group was set up for loved ones of the firefighter community because they didn’t naturally have a group of people to connect with who could understand what they were going through.

Although resiliency will look different for everyone in the aftermath of an event of mass violence, Del Vecchio-Scully says that counselors can foster resilience among clients by engaging in ego-strengthening exercises — namely, recognizing and honoring when they take a step forward in some way. Remind clients that simply getting up in the morning and completing a task such as attending a counseling appointment or going to work is evidence of resilience, she says.

Del Vecchio-Scully cautions, however, that when the immediate aftermath of an event of mass violence has passed, it will not be a “neat transition” from the psychological first aid stage to what survivors will need next. Counselors should be on the lookout for people who are struggling and might need mental health treatment, she says.

Trauma affects people on a number of different levels in a tragedy such as a mass shooting. The base level is personal trauma, or what the individual’s own experience in the tragedy was, Del Vecchio-Scully says. There is also vicarious trauma, which usually affects helpers who are repeatedly exposed to the traumatic stories of others, she says. Secondary trauma is experienced only where primary trauma has occurred and results from being exposed to others who have been traumatized by the same event, she explains. Shared trauma affects people at the community level — for example, a teacher who works at a different school in Newtown, she says.

Complicated reactions to events of mass violence and other disasters, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complicated PTSD and traumatic grief, are sometimes missed or misdiagnosed, Del Vecchio-Scully says. Counselors working with people in the aftermath of disaster or violent tragedy need to understand that trauma is a neurobiological injury to the brain, she says. A traumatic event such as a mass shooting can affect the brain in such a way that fearful memories get stored and the fight-or-flight response gets frozen. A cascade of neurochemicals then leads to triggering, emotional flooding, avoidance and hypervigilant reactions, she says.

“The long-term impact of trauma on children is particularly concerning within the Sandy Hook community [because] the brains of those directly impacted are in their most formative stages, ages 5 to 18,” Del Vecchio-Scully says. “The dysregulation of the brain due to trauma may impact brain size, brain hemisphere integration — which is important for emotional regulation — and an ability to determine cause and effect. [There is also] the impact on academic learning and performance.”

Del Vecchio-Scully suggests that counselors work from a trauma-informed model, which “requires advanced training in the neuroscience of trauma and trauma-informed treatments that focus on whole-brain treatment.” She says the treatments include eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, brainspotting, the emotional freedom technique, trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy, somatic experiencing and trauma-informed art therapy.

“Counselors must have a basic understanding of the brain’s reaction to trauma, avoid assessment/treatment that requires a client to ‘retell their story,’ utilize calming and soothing techniques to regulate the brain and then initiate a trauma-informed treatment approach,” Del Vecchio-Scully says.

Caring for the caregivers

Most recently in Newtown, Del Vecchio-Scully has been working to provide support for the mental health clinicians in the community. She says that two and a half years after the shootings, community members affected by the tragedy are still coming to see these clinicians for the first time, which means the impact hasn’t really lessened for these mental health professionals.

On top of that, the community’s mental health clinicians are likely navigating multiple layers of exposure to the tragedy. For example, a counselor might be hearing clients’ stories of trauma while simultaneously feeling personally connected to the trauma because their children go to school in Newtown.

Del Vecchio-Scully’s team has been working to create peer support groups for the mental health clinicians working in the community. The helping professionals, who are from in and around the Newtown area, have a deep commitment to helping their community, Del Vecchio-Scully says. But clinicians in these kinds of situations can struggle to identify when they become impaired.

“If you enter into this work with an open heart, it isn’t a matter of if you’ll be impacted by the work but when this will occur,” she says. “Self-care when responding following a mass violence or natural disaster tragedy requires the basics of adequate rest; food and drink; time off and away from the situation; good, solid support from others; [and] methods of decompressing from what has been witnessed, including supervision, which for licensed people often lapses.”

In her role in Newtown, Del Vecchio-Scully participates in two peer supervision groups. It is an experience that she terms “invaluable.”

“Our team has worked with nearly 400 Newtown residents since its inception in July 2014,” she says. “I have worked very closely with a group of families whose children survived the shooting and were in the classrooms where the shooting took place. Bob [Schmidt, a fellow leader in the Connecticut Counseling Association] and I run a monthly group with these parents, and I have worked individually with some of the parents and kids. I have also worked in the Sandy Hook School providing support to the staff.”

Linnenberg emphasizes that supervision or peer support is a must for counselors who provide services in the aftermath of mass tragedy, no matter their level of experience. Self-care is also about knowing when to take a break, he says. “It’s more than drinking water. It’s more than getting exercise,” he asserts. “All those things are important, but it is really … forcing yourself to take time off even though you know you’re needed.”

Prevention on campus

One of Meggen Sixbey’s roles as a counselor is to try to prevent instances of violence before they happen. As the associate director for crisis and emergency resources at the University of Florida’s counseling and wellness center, Sixbey serves as a member of the university’s multidisciplinary threat assessment team.

Multidisciplinary threat assessment teams, which can be convened in a variety of communities, such as college campuses, typically bring together representatives from that community to address individuals who have raised a level of concern. On a college campus, the team might include representatives from the university administration, law enforcement, the campus counseling center and other sectors of the campus, says Sixbey, a member of ACA.

At the University of Florida, Sixbey says the team is called a behavioral consultation team, and its purpose is to bring a holistic perspective to individuals of concern. That individual might be someone who is threatening harm to others, Sixbey says, but it’s also possible that the person is a victim in some way, such as someone who survived a car accident or is being stalked.

All students, faculty and staff at the university have access to a phone number and email address that allow them to report a person of concern, Sixbey says. That information first goes to the office of the dean of students, which vets the reports and forwards the situations that need to be addressed to the multidisciplinary threat assessment team.

A counselor’s role on teams such as these is to act as a consultant and assess the situation with others on the team, Sixbey says. Although other team members might want a counselor to predict the likelihood of violence or pathologize behaviors, Sixbey says her role is to help cultivate a holistic perspective by looking at the whole of the person and the whole of the systems around the person. She often finds herself asking questions about what else could be done or what else is in play in the situation to help move the team forward in its assessment. “I don’t really come in with a diagnostic lens,” she says.

The ethical considerations surrounding a counselor’s participation on teams such as these can be complex. For example, Sixbey says if she is currently working with or has previously worked with a client at the university counseling center who subsequently comes up as a person of concern, she doesn’t typically consult with the team on that assessment because it would be a conflict of interest. But each situation must be considered on a case-by-case basis, she says. For instance, it may not be helpful to the person of concern if Sixbey recuses herself because that action may confirm to the rest of the team that the person is seeking counseling services or has sought them in the past.

In other situations, Sixbey might possess confidential knowledge about the person of concern that she can’t share with the team even though she is participating in the assessment. For example, during the course of the team’s assessment, a student could be asked to meet with Sixbey. That student could confidentially share with Sixbey that she is willfully stalking a faculty member, despite claiming publicly that it was a cultural misunderstanding. “A lot of that ethical piece is having this firsthandish knowledge that we can’t share,” Sixbey says.

In such situations, Sixbey has to consider how she can consult with the team in a helpful way while still honoring the legal and ethical guidelines of confidentiality. In this example, she might suggest to the team that if the student is to see the faculty member in person, a third person should be present. That way, Sixbey could protect the confidentiality of the student but also protect the safety of the faculty member.

The most helpful thing counselors can do to navigate ethical dilemmas associated with participation on multidisciplinary threat assessment teams is to consult with other mental health professionals, Sixbey says. “Consultation is key, and if we don’t do that, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”

Some counselors might worry that a multidisciplinary threat assessment team is essentially a “profiling team,” Sixbey says. “That’s far from what these sorts of teams do if they’re doing it right.” In fact, teams such as the one Sixbey serves on focus mainly on ways they can help a person of concern be successful — “as opposed,” she says, “to cleaning up something that happens later because we didn’t do any kind of prevention.”

“I’d like to think our team is preventing crimes and homicides and suicides and depression, just frankly, on a daily basis,” Sixbey says. The hard part is that the team members will rarely know just how effective their intervention and prevention efforts have been at heading off crises. “We know when a school shooting happens, for example, but we don’t know when a school shooting has been prevented,” she says.

Since the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008, more college campuses have initiated multidisciplinary threat assessment teams, Sixbey says. In addition to defusing potential situations of mass violence, she says these teams allow counselors to feel they are part of a larger, more collaborative effort to help people.

“If it’s just us with that person behind closed doors, we’re going to have a really limited view,” Sixbey says. “We may have a tenth of the pie, and there’s 90 percent more that we just don’t know.”

Sixbey offers an example. Perhaps getting a family member involved in a situation might help a person of concern — and perhaps the dean’s office would be better positioned than the counseling office to get that family member involved. “Counselors [can] get caught in a role of [thinking], ‘It’s just me trying to help this person,’” Sixbey says, “and that can feel really daunting.”

‘It can happen here’

Although a community may be flooded with outside resources and supports in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, many of those supports, such as the American Red Cross, will eventually leave. At that point, Linnenberg says, the community itself needs to be prepared to take over.

For that to happen, Linnenberg contends that the community must be ready before a tragedy takes place. That includes mental health counselors and school counselors in the community preparing ahead of time for what they would need to do should an event of mass violence affect their community, he says. It also means counselors should prepare others in the community as well. For example, school counselors might help students understand what actions they should take if an event of mass violence were to happen at their school.

Counselors should also get more involved in public policy, Mascari says. “We tend not to think that we should be active in public policy, but public policy drives almost everything we do,” he says. Mascari tells his students to listen to what is being said in the public arena and then respond so that fewer public policy decisions will be made based on fear and misinformation.

The supposed connection between mass violence and mental illness is a perfect example, Mascari says. “There is a constant tagline in the media about mentally ill people performing violent acts,” he says. But Mascari points to a New York Times article written by Richard A. Friedman in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting that said “only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness.”

“While it is true that policy should consider closer screening of people with violent histories or mental illness who want to obtain guns, people should not stigmatize the majority of [individuals who are] mentally ill as violent, because they are not,” Mascari says.

Regardless of who the perpetrators of mass violence are or where these traumatic events take place, counselors need to be ready to respond, Del Vecchio-Scully says. “Following mass trauma, the community looks to counselors for support,” she says. “Therefore, counselors must have a minimum, base knowledge of trauma assessment and crisis intervention to assist immediately following the event before referring to a colleague with the advanced skills needed to engage in treatment,” which could mean another counselor or a different clinician with appropriate training.

“Nobody expects these things to happen, but they are happening with an ever-increasing amount of frequency,” Linnenberg says. “You hear about them almost every day. … We cannot necessarily prevent them from happening,” he says, “but we need to be prepared for them happening.”

Even in the class he teaches on crisis counseling and disaster mental health, Linnenberg says he has students who don’t understand why the door to the classroom should be locked.

“We do not have that mindset that this could happen to us at any time,” Linnenberg says. “The likelihood is very, very, very extremely low. But there is always that possibility. And, in a sense, as a counselor, you never want to be the one thinking, ‘I didn’t think it could have happened here.’ Yes, it can happen here.”

 

 

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To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

 

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Harm to Others

Earlier this year, the American Counseling Association published Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness by Brian Van Brunt. The book offers students and clinicians an effective way to increase their knowledge of and training in violence risk and threat assessment, and it also provides a comprehensive examination of current treatment approaches. Van Brunt offers numerous examples from recent mass shootings and rampage violence to help explain the motivations and risk factors of those who make threats.

 

See Counseling Today‘s Q+A with Van Brunt here: ct.counseling.org/2015/06/behind-the-book-harm-to-others-the-assessment-and-treatment-of-dangerousness/

 

For more information on the book, visit ACA’s Online Bookstore at counseling.org/bookstore or call 800.422.2648 ext. 222.

 

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Lynne Shallcross is a contributing writer to Counseling Today. She recently graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley. Contact her at lshallcross@berkeley.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org