Tragedies like the death of a student or teacher, and especially mass violence, can take a school community years to recover from, a panel of experts warned educators last week.
Mental health experts involved in responding to mass casualty events, natural disasters and other crises during a conference hosted by the University at Albany last week shared insights with educators into the long recovery process.
Recovery from a tragedy follows a similar trajectory: the community and outsiders rally together in the immediate aftermath, but eventually federal agents and news cameras leave town, and the community struggles with the longterm challenges that persist for years.
Tara Hughes, a mass casualty mental health response expert, said that some survivors may take as long as six to 10 months to progress through the initial stabilization phase in the aftermath of a disaster or tragedy. She urged educators to accept the help and support of the volunteers and professional responders who flood in after a tragedy to allow school staff to stabilize and prepare for the long haul of dealing with students and families struggling over months and any years.
“The reality is most school districts don’t have what they need,” said Hughes, who has worked responses to the Sandy Hook massacre, Boston Marathon bombing, Las Vegas music festival shooting and last fall's Schoharie limo crash. “Your staff in your school districts are going to have to deal with this for a very long time. For your guys it’s a marathon and your people need to be whole enough for the whole marathon in order to respond.”
Steve Moskowitz, director of emergency preparedness and response at the state Office of Mental Health, said he will often hear a common refrain from local leaders dealing with the aftermath of a disaster: “We’ve got it.” But that’s hardly ever the case, he said.
“I hang up the phone and sit back and know they aren’t doing okay,” Moskowitz said as he joined Hughes on a panel discussion. “The signs that things aren’t alright don’t tend to show up right away.”
They described how schools should provide universal support to students, families and staff in the aftermath of the tragedy, support applied widely to minimize the potential that long-term mental health problems emerge.
The signs of distress exhibited in the first weeks and months following a tragedy are not necessarily signs of a diganosable mental health illness, Hughes said.
Hughes also described the steps that follow most mass tragedies, including the scene inside centers set up to reunify families and victims and to share information about loved ones killed in the disaster: “It is a brutal place to be,” Hughes said.
Reunification is followed by the establishment of centers used as hubs of information and support services provided to victims and their families.
Community and school leaders will also face a litany of difficult choices in the days immediately following a tragedy. Politicians will come to visit: – “Those are very rarely healing and are much more difficult,” Hughes said – and vigils will be planned.
She urged educators to carefully consider the potential liability of hosting a vigil ceremony on school grounds, pointing out that in some cases people have died by suicide following vigils. She also said careful thought should be given to where memorial sites should be hosted: They should be somewhere accessible for people but also in a place that other people can avoid in case it stirs up trauma.
Amy Nitza, director of the institute for disaster mental health at SUNY New Paltz, explained how the long-term recovery process for schools can last years. She described the different long-term recovery strategies employed after school shooting in New Mexico and at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut.
After the initial stabilization period, which can take up to six months or more, Nitza said, schools and providers will need to identify and intervene with people not fully recovered from the tragedy. And while schools can deliver many social and mental health supports, “you guys can’t do this all by yourself,” she told the educators.
She said schools working with outside providers have used a variety of approaches in the aftermath of a tragedy, finding ways to deliver a spectrum of services in the schools, at homes and throughout the community.
At Sandy Hook, an agency embedded directly in the schools, having physicians assigned to each cohort of students as well as physicians assigned to work directly with teachers and staff. Six years later, Nitza said, that agency is still making referrals of students showing mental health signs related to the shooting. The agency is just now working on its transition out of the schools, she said.
She urged the educators to begin building relationships with mental health providers in their communities now instead of waiting until after a tragedy.
“After a tragedy is not when you want to go out and start developing those relationships,” Nitza said.