By Yael Shuman, M.A., LMFT, Trauma and EMDR-Trained Psychotherapist
Living in Colorado has provided me with a good amount of experience in dealing with tragic and traumatic large-scale events. During my 25 years as a psychotherapist, I have met with people greatly affected by mass shootings at Columbine High School, Arapahoe High School, and a theater in Aurora, Colorado. Anyone involved in these events has had their lives changed forever.
What’s struck me about the severity of these incidents is that people don’t have to be directly involved to be deeply affected by them. For example, I spoke to a juror who was involved in a court case about one of the mass shootings. After the trial, jurors were told that if they had any emotional problems, they would be provided with psychotherapy services to help them deal with the experience.
Just by seeing pictures of horrific scenes and hearing recordings of the scene, this juror went from being a highly functional individual to someone severely distressed and unable to cope. Here was someone who knew ahead of time that they would be exposed to unsettling and disturbing scenes and yet was totally unprepared for the damage that exposure would cause.
If someone can be so greatly affected by second-hand exposure to such tragic events, think about what happens to first responders when they face such traumatic situations.
While these professionals are well-trained to care for others and how to keep themselves physically safe during such events, there is no effective program that provides them with the necessary skills to cope with the trauma they’re likely to encounter, and care for themselves.
Preparing Responders to Cope with Trauma
People respond to and process trauma in different ways. What can be a traumatic event for one person may not have a similar effect on someone else. One of the best indicators of how someone will handle a traumatic event is how well equipped he or she is for exposure.
Effectively coping with stress is a skill that can be taught. For some people, this is a skill learned early in life. Children whose parents can effectively handle stress are more likely to cope well when faced with distressing situations. However, if people who are influential in a young person’s life are not skilled in handling distress, they can have negative effects on how that child processes or copes with stress and trauma.
If people can learn to effectively manage stress and process trauma, shouldn’t that be a skilled taught to all first responders?
I was curious how emergency agencies were teaching this, so I started researching pre-trauma training programs for first responders. However, I came across only one initiative that focused on offering first responders a training program to help them build their resiliency to trauma. I’ve continued researching pre-trauma resiliency programs, but haven’t found any programs that go beyond basic mental health training.
I have found plenty of information about how first responders can address their mental health issues. Many point to (and I agree with) having healthy habits such as:
- Regular exercise
- Sleeping seven-to-nine hours a night
- Eating three nutritious meals
- Having support systems
- Talking with friends/colleagues/family members.
This is all good advice for strong emotional and mental health. However, it doesn’t address or prepare responders to face and process actual trauma. These recommendations can keep responders afloat, but they don’t help them get back to feeling normal after experiencing trauma.
Initiating Pre-Trauma Training
First responders need to be specifically and directly taught about how to cope with the trauma they’re likely to experience. In the field of psychology, we have spent decades providing people with tools to help them cope after they’ve had a traumatic experience. But what first responders really need is to learn these skills before they face trauma, so they’re better equipped to process it when it happens.
Such pre-trauma training can come from the evidence-based practices already used by trauma therapists. What I am proposing is to take the skills that trauma therapists use to aid clients in regrouping and creating emotional stability after a trauma and teach those skills to all first responders during their basic training, so they have the skills for emotional resiliency beforehand. Pre-trauma training teaches first responders skills to help them calm their bodies and minds and think in an adaptive cognitive positive manner.
Most people do not seek treatment until after they’ve experienced a traumatic event. By then the distress is often barricaded in a person’s systems of neuropathways. Trauma therapists often spend months and even years first helping clients develop coping skills so they can feel in control and have the ability to calm their own systems before they can actually process the trauma itself.
However, if first responders are taught calming skills before they experience a trauma, their systems can be more resilient. When they do experience trauma, with practice and guidance, they will be able to move through therapy more easily because they already have the tools needed to address the trauma.
Equipping first responders with coping skills and making them more aware of trauma and the accompanying symptoms will not prevent them from experiencing strong emotions or pain. But pre-trauma training will provide them with a better framework to process trauma and deal with it in a healthier, more resilient way.
About the Author: Yael Shuman is a licensed marriage and family therapist with more than 25 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and organizations. She maintains a private practice in Denver, Colorado specializing in PTSD/ trauma, military and veteran issues, first responder issues, communication skills, and couples counseling. Her practice includes providing EMDR for trauma treatment, supervising interns, working with life transitions, divorce recovery, building healthy relationships, and treating stress, anxiety, and depression (including PPD). Prior to her work as a marriage and family therapist, Shuman spent five years working with Los Angeles County Child Protective Services (Family Preservation Unit) and foster care. She holds a master’s degree in Marriage & Family Therapy from California Family Study Center and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from California State University Northridge. She is trained in EMDR and equine-assisted EMDR. Additionally, she is a member of the American Association for Marriage & Family Therapists, EMDRIA, and an AAMFT-approved supervisor.