As the community around Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School prepares to go back to school, the Florida Counseling Association is hosting a free, two-day workshop focused on responding to communal trauma. The Friday event is tailored for mental health professionals, while the Saturday event is open exclusively to MSD staff.
"[We're] helping this group prepare to return to school, to deal with whatever they are experiencing in the moment, and give them a lot of tools, skills and practices so that regardless of where they find themselves—in whatever situation, whatever they're experiencing—they will have something that they can use to help them get through it more easily," says Deb Del Vecchio-Scully, the trauma specialist who will be leading the event.
Based in Connecticut, Del Vecchio-Scully is a licensed professional and nationally certified counselor. She's worked with survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and spent two years working at Sandy Hook Elementary School after the shooting there.
Del Vecchio-Scully spoke with Health News Florida about some of the issues for teachers and counselors during recovery from communal trauma. Below are some of the highlights.
On what makes communal trauma different from individual trauma:
"[This] communal event impacted hundreds of people within the school. And then you think about their family, parents, children, siblings, grandparents, friends. The event is much larger. The scope is that much bigger.
There are several characteristics that really don't happen in individual trauma generally: the media attention, having to deal with news reports, social media, the kind of intrusive nature in which a communal event continues to be present in the lives of who's experienced it. So in some ways it can be challenging to find an escape from it.
And another key difference is that this staff is going back to the site of where this occurred. They have to work through that—being able to walk through the doors again, to feel comfortable both as an educator or whatever role they are in the school, to learn how to educate traumatized students, to take care of themselves while they're doing that, to manage their own reaction, to manage their students' reactions."
A word of caution to mental health professionals:
"Any therapist who is working with a client who has been traumatized in this manner needs to have advanced training in treating the trauma. And you know, in our field, once we're licensed, we pretty much can have free rein in what we do and how we do it. And that could be potentially harmful.
My message and my challenge to the therapists in the Parkland area is: please stay in your lane.
If you haven't been trained in trauma, or you are newly trained in treating trauma, you're going to need support and training. And that includes doing a workshop.
I think one of the challenges is that therapists, in general, we're helpers. That's how we're hardwired. We want to make it better for others, but that need has to be secondary to providing the best optimal care for the person in front of you. "
Preparing for an "anniversary reaction":
"In anticipation of an anniversary, we start to remember what was happening at that time previously, good or bad. And they can invoke a lot of feelings and anxiety, bringing people on high alert again.
The return to school is a new kind of anniversary. It is a reminder of what happened before.
So this return to school, I believe, is likely causing a lot of reaction. For teachers, the staff, the students, the parents, family members. To some degree, it's a normal reaction to an extremely abnormal situation. But it's also very, very uncomfortable. And they may not realize why they're experiencing what they're experiencing; they might not put it together. It's important know it's an anniversary reaction.
For the staff, a part of what we'll talk about and address together is how to manage your reaction, particularly anniversary reaction, to that first day of school… [So] that they can feel a bit more confident returning to school, that they can manage their own reactions, there's a greater comfort in managing the reaction of their students and really manage their classroom again."
You can hear a longer conversation with Del Vecchio Scully on WLRN's Sundial this Tuesday at 1 p.m.
There's a waitlist for the Friday training for mental health professionals, but the Saturday workshop for MSD teachers and staff is still open. There is no cost to attend, but with limited space, participants are encouraged to register here.