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Sandy Hook School Shooting: First Responders Must be Prepared for the Rollercoaster of Emotions

By Leischen Stelter

Details continue to emerge from today’s tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As of the writing of this piece, police report 26 people have been killed with at least 18 children dead, according to the Associated Press. The alleged gunman has been identified as 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, who killed his mother, a teacher at the school.

This event occurred just days after a deadly mall shooting outside of Portland, Oregon where a 22-year-old man opened fire in the busy mall food court, killing two people and severely injured another before taking his own life.

Unfortunately, these senseless and tragic shootings will continue to happen around the country. One of the aspects that doesn’t often get discussed (certainly not in the mainstream media, anyway), is the impact these violent incidents have on law enforcement and first responders. Those whose jobs it is to respond to these mass shootings witness scenes that no person should have to see. The healing process from such tragedy can be a challenging process with short- and long-term effects.

Charles Russo has spent a considerable amount of his 25-year law enforcement career focusing on the psychological effects of police work. Part of his Ph.D. work involved officer psychology as does his classroom work as a professor of criminal justice at American Military University.

Russo was one of the founding members of his Florida department’s critical incident stress management team and he participates in the county and state’s response team as well. These teams are deployed immediately after an incident or disaster with the goal of aiding first responders with their mental wellness and providing them with resources to aid in their psychological healing.

Based on the news reports, the scenario inside the Connecticut school is extremely gruesome.

“Especially for those first responders who have kids the same age, they are going to have a really hard time dealing with this situation,” predicted Russo.

Hopefully stress management teams in the region have been deployed for first responders. The intention of these teams is multi-faceted. Immediately after the initial response is over, it’s important for such teams to set up a place for first responders to gather that is away from the view of the public and the media. This location is where first responders can debrief, discuss the incident with one another and receive psychological guidance from trained professionals. It’s important for first responders to have this safe place to talk so they can process the situation and begin the healing process, said Russo.

A significant role of the stress management team is to inform first responders about what they can expect emotionally after an event like this. “We assure them that what they’re going through is normal, what they witnessed was an abnormal event, and the reaction they’re going to have is in fact normal,” he said.  

Russo said he, like many officers, has been involved in shootings and other traumatic incidents. What helped him the most was knowing what to expect emotionally and psychologically.

“I had already done my homework, so when the emotional rollercoaster started, I knew I wasn’t going crazy. Whereas, if I didn’t have that knowledge beforehand, I can easily understand why people think they’re losing it,” he said.

Issues like nightmares, eating issues, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, extreme highs and lows, anger and pain are all very normal reactions to such a traumatic event, he said.

These teams also need to provide first responders with tools and resources to “get back to normal,” said Russo. As a general rule, about 80% of officers involved in tragic incidents will be able to deal with those situations on their own. However, the other 20% will require professional assistance. Russo said it is important for officers to know that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather the right steps to take in order to recover. 

It’s also important for these stress management teams to involve family members in the recovery process. Those close to first responders need to know what to expect, what is “normal” behavior and what is unhealthy or concerning behavior. Family members also need to know who to reach out to for help and what resources are available for their loved one as well as for themselves. 

Russo encourages officers to try to get back to a healthy routine as soon as possible. Things like eating well and exercising are very effective methods for coping with all kinds of stress. It’s also important to find safe outlets to discuss and talk through emotions and feelings. Russo recommends staying away from things like excessive alcohol use and self-medicating practices that can exacerbate the situation and almost never help with the healing process.

While no one can adequately prepare themselves for the trauma like the scene that law enforcement officers’ responded to in Connecticut, it is important to acknowledge and recognize the immediate need for resources to help them with their short- and long-term recovery needs.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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