Deb Del Vecchio-Scully is the clinical recovery leader of the Newtown Recovery and Resiliency Team, formed out of a $7.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to bolster the Connecticut town's mental health recovery and community resiliency in the wake of the shooting.
According to Del Vecchio-Scully
, this is the first time that a DOJ grant has been awarded specifically to provide mental health services following school-based violence.
When the grant was being written, Del Vecchio-Scully
says, it was nearly impossible to gauge what Newtown's needs would be in the months and years ahead.
"There's no road map," she
says, adding that the tragedy was unique because of the age of the children who were murdered and the impact the event had worldwide.
"What I've really come to understand about trauma is that in the aftermath of tragedy, regardless of how it happened - if it's natural tragedy, if it's violence - the reactions are extraordinarily complicated," says Del Vecchio-Scully, a member of the American Counseling Association and the executive director of the Connecticut Counseling Association, a branch of ACA.
Counselors should think about that concept in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Del Vecchio-Scully
also witnessed this after the school shootings in Newtown.
"Communities can be overwhelmed by well-meaning helpers in the aftermath of a mass violence event, just as they are after a natural disaster," she
Counselors who are interested in assisting after a tragedy should start by seeking training beforehand to become an American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer, Del Vecchio-Scully
Among other places, the training is offered each year at the ACA Conference & Expo.
Although resiliency will look different for everyone in the aftermath of an event of mass violence, Del Vecchio-Scully
says that counselors can foster resilience among clients by engaging in ego-strengthening exercises - namely, recognizing and honoring when they take a step forward in some way.
Remind clients that simply getting up in the morning and completing a task such as attending a counseling appointment or going to work is evidence of resilience, she
Del Vecchio-Scully cautions, however, that when the immediate aftermath of an event of mass violence has passed, it will not be a "neat transition" from the psychological first aid stage to what survivors will need next.
Counselors should be on the lookout for people who are struggling and might need mental health treatment, she
Trauma affects people on a number of different levels in a tragedy such as a mass shooting.
The base level is personal trauma, or what the individual's own experience in the tragedy was, Del Vecchio-Scully
There is also vicarious trauma, which usually affects helpers who are repeatedly exposed to the traumatic stories of others, she
Secondary trauma is experienced only where primary trauma has occurred and results from being exposed to others who have been traumatized by the same event, she
Shared trauma affects people at the community level - for example, a teacher who works at a different school in Newtown, she
Complicated reactions to events of mass violence and other disasters, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complicated PTSD and traumatic grief, are sometimes missed or misdiagnosed, Del Vecchio-Scully
Counselors working with people in the aftermath of disaster or violent tragedy need to understand that trauma is a neurobiological injury to the brain, she
A traumatic event such as a mass shooting can affect the brain in such a way that fearful memories get stored and the fight-or-flight response gets frozen.
A cascade of neurochemicals then leads to triggering, emotional flooding, avoidance and hypervigilant reactions, she
"The long-term impact of trauma on children is particularly concerning within the Sandy Hook community [because] the brains of those directly impacted are in their most formative stages, ages 5 to 18," Del Vecchio-Scully
"The dysregulation of the brain due to trauma may impact brain size, brain hemisphere integration - which is important for emotional regulation - and an ability to determine cause and effect. [There is also] the impact on academic learning and performance."
suggests that counselors work from a trauma-informed model, which "requires advanced training in the neuroscience of trauma and trauma-informed treatments that focus on whole-brain treatment.
says the treatments include eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, brainspotting, the emotional freedom technique, trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy, somatic experiencing and trauma-informed art therapy.
"Counselors must have a basic understanding of the brain's reaction to trauma, avoid assessment/treatment that requires a client to 'retell their story,' utilize calming and soothing techniques to regulate the brain and then initiate a trauma-informed treatment approach," Del Vecchio-Scully
Caring for the caregivers
Most recently in Newtown, Del Vecchio-Scully
has been working to provide support for the mental health clinicians in the community.
says that two and a half years after the shootings, community members affected by the tragedy are still coming to see these clinicians for the first time, which means the impact hasn't really lessened for these mental health professionals.
On top of that, the community's mental health clinicians are likely navigating multiple layers of exposure to the tragedy.
For example, a counselor might be hearing clients' stories of trauma while simultaneously feeling personally connected to the trauma because their children go to school in Newtown.
team has been working to create peer support groups for the mental health clinicians working in the community.
The helping professionals, who are from in and around the Newtown area, have a deep commitment to helping their community, Del Vecchio-Scully
But clinicians in these kinds of situations can struggle to identify when they become impaired.
"If you enter into this work with an open heart, it isn't a matter of if you'll be impacted by the work but when this will occur," she
"Self-care when responding following a mass violence or natural disaster tragedy requires the basics of adequate rest; food and drink; time off and away from the situation; good, solid support from others; [and] methods of decompressing from what has been witnessed, including supervision, which for licensed people often lapses."
role in Newtown, Del Vecchio-Scully
participates in two peer supervision groups.
It is an experience that she
"Our team has worked with nearly 400 Newtown residents since its inception in July 2014," she
Regardless of who the perpetrators of mass violence are or where these traumatic events take place, counselors need to be ready to respond, Del Vecchio-Scully
"Following mass trauma, the community looks to counselors for support," she
Deb Del Vecchio-Scully at firstname.lastname@example.org