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Recovering from Trauma: Therapists Reflect on Their Work in Newtown

Lucy Nalpathanchil

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. "I thought it was just another one of those phone calls we get all the time," she said. "I didn’t even pay attention to it. I actually didn’t pick it up." Later, she realized it was an alert from the school district. "My husband called me from the office, panicked," she said. "It was just an unreal experience."

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. "Mostly, we see a lot of nightmares," she said. "The ones that were closer to the action, we see jumpiness when they hear loud noises. They maybe can’t handle crowds. Or their nervous systems are oversensitive, so they can’t manage what they could manage before. Sometimes, they’re bed-wetting, or [showing] aggression, so it’s a mixed bag. It really depends on the child." 

Gillies is a part of the Trauma Recovery Network in Fairfield County. It’s made up of a group of therapists who specialize in a form of psycho-therapy for traumatic stress known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR.

The team that was part of the initial response after the school shootings included Yale clinicians with the Child Study Center. Psychiatry Professor Dr Stephen Marans, Director of the Childhood Violent Trauma Center, said that in the days after the tragedy, his team focused on increasing local capacity among primary care and mental health providers to correctly respond to the needs of the community. That meant training them in effective screening and early intervention techniques. The Yale clinicians also provided in- school recovery techniques for students at the elementary school once classes resumed in nearby Monroe.

Marans recounted how one student shared a coping technique with her classmates. "At one point," he said, "when the class had a big reaction to a noise, she raised her hand and said, 'Let me teach you what I learned about how to be the boss of my own body again.'  This then became a technique of relaxation that the class learned to use at various times. This is part of the recovery that is impressive to see, especially in situations where children have been so overwhelmed by the extent of the horrors that occur.”

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. 

Lucy leads Connecticut Public's strategies to deeply connect and build collaborations with community-focused organizations across the state.

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