Reflections on Crisis Counseling
When I first joined the crisis team, I thought we'd usually be dealing with emergencies that disrupted the whole school. But, most of the emergencies have involved individual students who seem suicidal or have taken a drug overdose, and most of the aftermath counseling has involved small groups of students and staff who are affected by the death of a student or staff member.
In times of crisis, I often have felt overwhelmed by the depth of despair and grief experienced by so many. In reaching out, I have had to learn how to draw in those among the quiet ones who will let some of it out only if I encourage turn-taking during an aftermath group session.
I also have learned how to avoid overwhelming those who are not ready, psychologically, to deal with what happened and those for whom the event itself is not important except as a trigger setting off strong emotions (e.g., pent up grief related to the death of others who were close to them and/or fears about their own mortality). At the same time, I've learned to avoid playing into the dynamics of those who just seem to get caught up in and want to maintain the supercharged atmosphere created by a crisis.
Early in my crisis team experience, I was surprised when one administrator seemed reluctant to have the team offer aftermath support. He wanted things to return to 'normal' as fast as possible and was convinced the team's activity would keep things stirred up. He also expressed concern that many students would be overwhelmed by the added pressures of reflecting on what had happened, listening to others' reactions, and expressing their own. He had concluded that the best strategy was to encourage everyone to put the event behind them and get on with things. We agreed that he was probably right with respect to most students. And, we finally convinced him that we could proceed in ways that would help to normalize the situation for the majority and still provide for those with special needs.
I have since learned that many people share a concern that crisis interveners don't appreciate how many individuals are ready to get on with things. So, I always try to assure everyone that I understand this, and then I clarify that helping those with special needs is an important part of getting things back to normal.
One aspect of normalization after the death of a student or staff member seems to be a wide-spread desire to gather funds to help the family if there is a need and/or to arrange a tribute. When this is the case, the concerned energy of most of the school population can be channeled in this direction after initial expressions of emotion are validated. Extended aftermath groups are necessary only for those seen as profoundly affected.
One of the hardest things about crisis counseling is establishing a relationship with students who don't know me at a time when they desperately need someone familiar whom they can trust. Therefore, I try, whenever possible, to enlist someone to work beside me who the students look up to. At the very least, I quickly identify someone in the group with whom I can ally myself.
Responding to crisis is exhausting. Thus, we find it essential to have enough team members to spell each other whenever extended counseling is required on a given day. In responding to other's needs, it's easy to ignore the impact on ourselves.
As a health professional, what drew me to crisis intervention is that I knew it was an essential element of any comprehensive approach to maintaining psychological well-being. What I didn't realize was what a powerful contribution an active school-based crisis team could make to a school's sense of community. At first, team meetings focused on improving crisis response plans and communicating them to the rest of the school. We found our efforts to take care of these matters were reassuring to others. Once these tasks were accomplished, we found ourselves addressing other school safety concerns and ways for students and staff to be more supportive of each other. In many ways, the crisis team has become a special forum for sharing concerns and a symbol of the school community's commitment to taking care of each other. And, I think that is pretty basic to maintaining our mental health!