‘Validate Every Feeling:’ How CT Mental Health Professionals Respond to School Crises

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Maren Sanchez. Clinton Howel. Teddy Balkin. James McGrath. Elijah Gomez.

In each case, a now-common refrain in messages sent by school officials following such events is a variation of “guidance will be available for those affected.”

But what does this consultation look like?

Depending on how close a student or staff member is to such a tragedy, this response can mean a variety of things: classroom meetings to share specific facts about an incident, opening hours for individual counseling or referrals for more intensive treatment. , for example.

While there are best practices and common methodologies, “there isn’t necessarily a uniform process that will be applied globally across all schools,” said Sandi Logan-McKibben, a former elementary school counselor. and intermediate who is now an assistant clinical professor and director of the academic counseling program at Sacred Heart University.

“What are the circumstances surrounding (a crisis)? ” she says. “It’s part of the nuanced approach to how schools deal with things. The most important thing is that school counselors and administrators work together to form a school crisis team. »

Child deaths in Connecticut in recent years have all occurred under different circumstances: Sanchez, 16, died after a fatal stabbing in 2014 at a Milford high school; Howell, 12, was shot and killed in Bridgeport in 2018; The accidental death of 16-year-old Balkind occurred at a January hockey game in Greenwich; and McGrath, 17, who was stabbed at a house party in Shelton, and Gomez, 15, who was shot in Hamden, died earlier this month.

And that’s just to name a handful.

In Connecticut, school districts are required to have emergency operations plans that will include established protocols to follow depending on the type of incident that occurs.

“We talk a lot about psychological triage,” said Paula Gill-Lopez, a professor at Fairfield University, director of its school psychology program and chair of the state’s School Safety and Crisis Response Committee.

“When something like this happens, you have to sort the population, students and staff, into tiers,” she said. “You’re going to assess everyone’s mental health.”

Depending on how they’re affected, children can have all sorts of issues, Gill-Lopez said, such as guilt for not seeing a possible warning sign sooner. But those who may not be near tragedy could also have strong feelings.

“I’ve had teachers say, ‘This person has been here for three days, it’s time to go back to class,'” she said. “No it is not.

“There will definitely be children who will benefit, but immediately after a crisis you need to validate every feeling because children will learn to cope with how they are coping and how adults have helped them. understand and normalize their feelings,” Gill-Lopez said. “There’s no right way to feel, and that’s the message to kids.”

“There are definitely things you would want to focus on,” said Logan-McKibben, who responded to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. “The first thing I would say is to normalize the everyone’s emotions, that it is appropriate for them to experience their emotions and provide a space to talk about and process them.”

The triage approach extends to determining who may need long-term support beyond the immediate aftermath of an incident, she said. It’s also important to educate others about what to look out for in the wake of a death or loss, such as a straight student who suddenly doesn’t turn in their homework.

At the same time, it is possible to offer too much support.

“You want to provide as little support as possible because people develop their coping skills by coping with crises,” Gill-Lopez said. “You don’t want to deprive someone of exercising those coping skills by giving them support they don’t need. Similarly, if you give them support they don’t need, they may also think “I should be more upset” or “I’m not responding in the right way.”

In addition to students and staff, counseling should include the counselors themselves, especially those working in an affected school or community, with the help of outside professionals.

“If this happened in my school as a school counselor, maybe I’ll be on that school crisis team because I know my community, but at the same time I also experience the loss that’s happening,” said Logan-McKibben. . “It shouldn’t be me as an individual school counselor meeting all of our school’s needs. We should bring in other school counselors from neighboring schools that are further away.

“The reason it’s really important for caregivers to take care of themselves is also because children will get this calm self-regulating presence through their parasympathetic system — it’s involuntary,” Gill-Lopez said. “If parents and caregivers take care of themselves and do everything they need to do for them, children will be fine. As role models, they will not only impact children physically, but physiologically, which is unintended.

As crises affecting students have become more frequent over time, efforts to scale up psychological support in response to them have also intensified, according to professionals in the field.

In Connecticut, the state created the Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation last year to conduct research and training, as well as manage staff across the state to coordinate regional crisis teams to deliver help when needed.

Gill-Lopez, a faculty affiliated with the center, said it expands on work started by Gabriel Lomas, a Western Connecticut State University professor who established a regional response team in 2014.

The center will absorb the chairs of the Gill-Lopez School Safety and Response Committee and focus on school safety and prevention, as well as training and preparation to establish regional teams across the State to Respond to School Districts Overwhelmed by Tragedy.

“In a state where we had the worst school shooting, now challenged by what just happened in Texas, we should have a prepared, focused, equipped state,” Gill-Lopez said. “The focus is always on prevention, but inevitably there will be events that pass people by and we have to intervene and then recover.”

Communities should also work to offer more support at times other than the immediate aftermath of a crisis or disaster, Logan-McKibben said.

“Typically, we only see a community response when there’s a crisis,” she said. “We need communities to step up and offer support and advocate in the best interests of their community members, not just during a crisis.”

Amid a pandemic that has killed millions, that’s more true than ever, Gill-Lopez said.

“We are in a time like no other,” she said – challenging to carefully sort people into categories of victims, bystanders and first responders. “In this crisis that we have been experiencing for two years, we are all victims. We have all been affected in one way or another at different levels. We have all suffered. We have all lost.

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