Addressing mental health is vital long after tragedy strikes
When 24 victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing flooded the trauma center of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the immediate focus was on saving lives.
But after patients stabilized in the days and weeks ahead, clinicians were acutely aware of an injury that couldn’t be easily seen: emotional trauma.
Beth Israel’s licensed social workers were beside patients and their terrified family members for their entire hospital stay to offer any support they needed.
“We had patients here for up to five weeks. We made sure that every patient that was here had someone they would see as a familiar face and was available to them,” said Barbara Sarnoff Lee, senior director of social work and patient and family engagement at Beth Israel.
Caring for the mental health of victims and their families after traumatic events like the Boston bombing and last week’s mass shooting in Las Vegas is an essential part of disaster response, according to behavioral health experts. After such events, mental health professionals from the community—and even across the country—mobilize to help victims deal with the trauma.
“Every state, every county, every town has a disaster plan, and they have rules on the physical side and the emotional side,” said Linda Rosenberg, CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health. “Usually, mental health professionals will be part of the first-responder groups. They will do counseling, they will be there as a resource.”
Las Vegas declared a state of emergency after the mass shooting last week and counseling was part of the response. The city used the Las Vegas Convention Center to provide 24/7 grief counseling and bereavement services to family members of victims and the community.
Local mental health providers in the community stepped up to help as well. Skye Counseling, an outpatient mental health facility in Las Vegas, provided free counseling to anyone affected by the mass shooting.
“The main thing for us is to let people tell their stories in a safe place where they don’t feel judged and feel comfortable,” said Jennifer Howe, a Skye counselor.
Its also typical for the federal government to get involved. The Federal Emergency Management Agency facilitates and provides grief counseling after disasters that involve federal government intervention. For instance, FEMA was deployed to Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing that killed 168 people. FEMA offered grief counseling to the victims and their families “for years” after the attack, Rosenberg said.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also provides counseling after disasters. It opened a hotline that’s providing immediate counseling to anyone after the Las Vegas shooting.
The agency also had boots on the ground in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico after hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. It even trained community volunteers to go door-to-door in affected areas and check on families to see how they are coping. Those efforts can last years if necessary.
“One of the goals is to create an atmosphere of resiliency so communities and individuals are able to cope more effectively in the long term,” said Maryann Robinson, chief of the emergency mental health and traumatic stress services branch at SAMHSA.
But victims and the community aren’t the only ones vulnerable to trauma, said Laura Usher, senior manager for criminal justice and advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Disaster can lead to burnout and distress for mental health professionals. There is a shortage of providers, so they can be stretched thin in moments of tragedy. The U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration projected that the nation needs to add 10,000 providers to each of seven separate mental healthcare professions by 2025 to meet growth in demand.
“Mental health professionals who go out of their way to assist people and work extra hours are more likely to burn out and experience trauma themselves,” Usher said. “You want everyone to be healthy, and I think that becomes more difficult and more strained when there are fewer mental health professionals.”
AP PHOTO Friends of Las Vegas shooting victim Denise Burditus of Martinsburg, W.Va., attend a vigil in her honor.