Orlando: 50 dead. Virginia Tech: 32 dead. Sandy Hook: 27 dead.
Mass casualty incidents (MCIs) involve everyone in some way. Fortunately, most of us experience them via the 24-hour news cycle of cable news or the internet. We’re spared the horror of actually being present for a mass shooting or a bombing. However, the trauma is unimaginably larger for witnesses, victims and friends and family of those killed.
The same is true for first responders.
Most police departments train rigorously to prepare for MCIs. However, the psychological toll these events take on police and other emergency workers often goes untreated. It’s a gap that a new report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) attempts to fill.
Preparing for the worst
Spurred in part by the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, “Preparing for the Unimaginable” attempts to help management for police and other first responders to better cope with the aftereffects of MCIs on mental health.
“U.S. law enforcement has learned from tragic events over the years and now trains to respond to threats with the best equipment and practices known today. However, many chiefs are not prepared to deal effectively with the intense scope and unanticipated duration of the aftermath of these events, and many chiefs are unaware of the impact such events will have on their communities and the officers in their agencies,” writes retired Police Chief Michael Kehoe of Newtown, Connecticut, in the study’s foreword. Kehoe led the response to the 2012 shooting.
“A mass casualty event could happen anywhere, anytime,” said Ronald Davis, office director of the DoJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in a press release. “We must prepare our officers to not only respond to these tragedies; we must also provide them the tools to deal with the aftermath.”
In addition to providing information on how to prepare for an MCI, the guide also offers advice on finding mental health professionals, creating support groups for officers and coping strategies for more common traumatic events like suicides and domestic violence. Additionally, the InterAgency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability (IAB) is conducting an ongoing project to find ways to reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other disorders in first responders.
What is PTSD?
Stress reactions are normal after traumatic events. However, some people develop PTSD and continue to experience the same fight-or-flight response long after the event is over. According to the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH), PTSD comes in both short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) forms. The symptoms of PTSD can be very vivid, including nightmares and unwanted thoughts. A person with PTSD can even experience flashbacks to the traumatic event. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, symptoms of PTSD may appear months or even years after the traumatic event.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, NIMH reports patients have to experience the following symptoms for at least one month:
- At least one avoidance symptom – these include staying away from places and things that remind people of the event, or avoiding thoughts and feelings related to the event
- At least one symptom related to re-experiencing the traumatic event – these symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares and unwanted thoughts
- At least two symptoms involving comprehension and moods – these include memory problems, feelings of guilt and negative thoughts
- At least two symptoms including arousal and reactivity – these include feelings of tension, sleeping problems and mood swings
According to NIMH, PTSD can be treated with medication and psychotherapy. Prolonged exposure therapy (PE) is often used as a method for treating PTSD. The Veterans’ Administration reports PE therapy involves slowly reintroducing the patient to the things, people and places associated with their trauma, along with breathing exercises.
Untreated trauma can lead to a wide variety of problems. Anxiety and depression can so thoroughly disrupt lives it can lead to career problems, substance abuse and even suicide. Sovereign Health of California provides expert treatment for both mental disorders and substance abuse. We use effective treatment modalities to help our patients live healthy, sober lives. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at firstname.lastname@example.org.