December 14 was off to a normal start for Marcy Kane, PhD, vice president of Child Services at the regional behavioral health agency Wellmore. Then, shortly after 9:30 am her phone rang.
“It was the Danbury Police Department notifying us that there was a shooting incident [at Sandy Hook School] in Newtown,” Dr Kane told The Bee in a recent interview. The mental health professional said that she and a team of six clinicians immediately responded, not yet prepared for the nightmare scenario they soon would face.
“We had nothing to prepare us for the magnitude of this incident,” she said. “As we were heading to the scene, we thought it might involve one child, and that we would have to be dealing with the reaction of others.”
Dr Kane arrived from a separate location shortly after her team, and was immediately ushered into a room at the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company headquarters where her Wellmore clinicians were counseling adults who could not locate their children. By shortly after 10 am that morning, she and her staff began realizing the grave situation they were facing and called for more colleagues to join them.
“By the afternoon we had 18 staff members on site, and eight of those stayed or went back in time to support those who began getting death notifications,” she said. “We had a variety of roles and responsibilities throughout that first day, but by the evening our remaining senior staff could only provide whatever support possible to those family members still waiting [for official notifications].”
By the following morning, she and other staff had transitioned to a hastily created counseling and gathering center set up at Reed Intermediate School, where a number of Wellmore clinicians remained until early January, when the demand for their expertise began to subside.
It was there that Dr Kane was joined by Wellmore’s Chief Clinical Officer Robert W Plant, PhD. The two remained fixtures at the Reed counseling center every day supporting their own staffers, as well as meeting with Newtown school personnel and others who were trying to come to grips with the devastation they and their colleagues, along with the community, had just experienced.
Teachers who lost colleagues, those who remained in classrooms bypassed by the shooter, and many others who hid themselves and students in closets and storage areas waiting for a police rescue were among those who sought counsel from the Wellmore staff. There were others who had to face being evacuated past or in sight of victims.
“Some of these [school] staff who were exposed to the worst turned right around playing a role in comforting other victims,” Dr Kane said. “For some it wasn’t until days or weeks later that they recognized they were exhibiting signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress or anxiety. And to their credit, they sought help.”
Feeling The Effects
Others — staffers who were not directly exposed to the crime scene inside the school or those in the community with no direct connection to the school — were beginning to feel the aftereffects of 12/14.
“For some, it was when their children returned to school after the holidays. For others it was celebrating events like birthdays,” she said. “These and other triggers could cause a delayed response to the trauma that might only begin affecting people months, even years, later.”
Prior to 12/14, Wellmore was best known as the agency that responded to calls from the school district when a student was experiencing some type of crisis or emotional incident, according to Dr Plant. He said Wellmore is expert at delivering intensive in-home or community-based crisis intervention.
“Within the first couple of weeks after the incident, we received a good number of crisis calls from Newtown schools,” he recalled. “It eventually settled down, but there are still a number of families we continue to support.
“Some of our services are for very young children, while others are geared more for a high school age student,” he said. “Besides immediate response, we also provide care coordination for those trying to navigate the mental health system.”
Dr Plant explained that even in children as young as prekindergarten age, behavioral issues can present, providing those seeking help with early intervention opportunities that can make a difference for the rest of that child’s life.
“Without the right help, and recognition of an issue, these youngest children can become predisposed to greater issues later on in life,” he said. One of Wellmore’s most successful initiatives, “Child First,” provides comprehensive support for both the child and his or her parents and caregivers.
“Child First provides tips to help a child navigate interpersonal relationships at school, home, and in the community,” he said.
Three Months Out
Now, as the community looks back three months out from the events of 12/14, Dr Plant says his staff is still encountering new issues among residents and district workers.
“So we deal with these new issues as they develop, and we hand off to appropriate agencies providing ongoing care,” he said. “Three months out, we are seeing the transition from shock to the potential for a number of people requiring long-term aid,” he said. “And we’re here to help the community as it is making the shift. We’re available as long as Newtown needs us.”
Dr Plant agrees with his colleague that traumatic responses to the 12/14 tragedy can begin manifesting themselves now, and could continue long into the future.
“It affects many people, even some at a great distance from the incident,” he said. “It can trigger depression, stress, sleeplessness, and anxiety. Maybe today there is even more need for support, especially in those who previously struggled with these or other issues.”
With that in mind, Drs Plant and Kane encourage anyone who thinks they simply need to talk about how they are feeling should seek out a trained ear from among the myriad agencies still actively engaged in community support response, like Wellmore.
“People may think there are others who need more help than they do, but I assure them there is a huge network of professionals standing by waiting to talk to them,” Dr Plant said. “We know that only about half of those who could use support following a traumatic incident actually go out and get it. So I hope those who feel they have been affected by this terrible tragedy, even now, reach out.
“In a lot of cases, these people will feel a lot better because they did,” he added. “And we will be there whenever they are ready.”
For information about Wellmore, visit Wellmore.org or call 203-574-9000.