Recovering from Trauma: Therapists Reflect on Their Work in Newtown
The discussion after last year's Newtown shootings was dominated by two topics: gun control and mental health. Many people focused on possible illnesses of the shooter, but there’s another side to the mental health discussion. In the aftermath of a tragedy, communities need help healing.
Helping children and adults with their trauma symptoms also takes a toll on the mental health providers.
In this week leading up to the anniversary of the school shootings, we check in with mental health professionals who have been guiding trauma recovery since December 14.
Valerie Gillies is the mother of a child who goes to school in Newtown. She exhales heavily remembering the phone ringing that day. "
Luckily, her daughter was home with her, and not in school. But Gillies would soon learn about the horrors of the day from other families who were tragically impacted.
Gillies is a licensed family therapist whose specialty is treating children. In the year since the shootings, she has treated 80 school children who exhibited a variety of symptoms related to the traumatic event. "
Helping children and adults with their trauma symptoms also takes a toll on the mental health providers. Valerie Gillies spent long days treating so many children that she, herself, experienced secondary trauma. It was not uncommon among other therapists in the community. "I had to pull back," she said, "because it was really intense. It was very long days for a very long time. When you’re doing the work, you can’t get engaged in what happened, because if I had thought about that while I was trying to help the children, they would have felt it."
Her colleagues, like psychologist Dr. Karen Alter Reid, treated Gillies, and she’s now treating children again. Gillies said the good news is that those at the epicenter of the tragedy also are getting better.
Besides Newtown children, therapists with the Trauma Recovery Network have been working with Connecticut state troopers and local police. But Dr. Alter Reid said therapists expect to be just as busy despite one year passing. "It’s about staying the long haul," Reid said. "Trauma symptoms pop up on a little thing a year later, two years later. In the beginning, you can do a lot of preventative work for PTSD in those first couple of months, while memories change course. You can heal throughout a year later; two years later; five years later. I think there’s a lot of people who have stayed with this community, because as I mentioned, a year is a marker, but it's also the beginning."
That’s because the circle has widened, and others affected by the trauma -- whether in Newtown, or surrounding communities -- are just now coming forward to ask for help.