From natural disasters like earthquakes and flooding, to terrorist attacks and mass shootings, the world can seem a violent, scary place. As if surviving such an ordeal weren’t traumatic enough, live witnesses and spectators exposed to media coverage of such events online and on television can suffer significant emotional distress as well.¹ Whenever tragedy strikes, it affects whole communities long after the event itself is over.
Crisis counselors are often the first on the scene to help communities begin to recover. This specialized line of work is not always the same as other forms of counseling, but its importance to the communities being served, and the individuals dealing with the aftermath of tragedy, makes this a critical line of work for the counseling profession.
Before trauma victims have any hope of addressing their emotional needs, they have to tend to their physical needs–food, water, shelter, etc. It may sound obvious, but in the wake of a disaster these considerations can easily be neglected, including by the victims themselves. That does not mean that counselors don’t belong among the first response teams on the scene. Following a crisis, counselors sometimes have to get hands-on with their patients–literally.²
In the aftermath of a major natural disaster or violent tragedy, shock can cause witnesses to simply shut down. When someone is in shock, a helpful technique counselors will use to gently draw them back to reality is bilateral stimulation. This simply entails alternately holding and squeezing a person’s hands, one at a time.² Counselors do sometimes have to operate at this intersection of physical and mental health, just to help get patients to a place where they are ready to start talking again. Helping them through this first layer of trauma is a critical step in getting them closer to dealing with the emotional impact of whatever they have gone through.
Just because a person is functional, responsive, and capable of communicating doesn’t mean they aren’t still suffering from their experience. One of the most common symptoms of post-traumatic stress is becoming overwhelmed by emotions.² Survivors and witnesses often feel guilt and confusion about their emotions, making them reluctant to admit to feeling them, much less finding a healthy way to cope.¹
Simple as it may sound, having an experienced counselor talking to survivors about how they feel is a major therapeutic step. By giving voice to their emotions, survivors can come closer to accepting their own reactions, understanding that it is normal to feel confused, vulnerable helpless, and all the other sensations that can accompany a traumatic ordeal. By talking through their emotional state, survivors can learn that these normal reactions can be managed and even change over time to a new, healthy normal.¹
Guiding Adults–Especially Parents and Teachers
Children who experience, witness, or even learn about a disaster through the news will naturally have a lot of questions. Tragedy can disrupt a child’s sense of security, identity, trust, and ability to function normally.
While counselors can be a huge help in addressing these questions, sometimes it is even more beneficial to have adults they already know and trust talk young children through the answers. It is important therefore that authority figures–parents and teachers–not only provide these answers, but do so in a compassionate, constructive way that helps young children recover their sense of security and capacity to continue functioning as normally as possible.³
The guidance counselors provide adults to, in turn, counsel their own children and students through recovery helps everyone gain a sense of normalcy. Talking about what happened and addressing the difficult questions is actually an important part of healing for adults as well as children. Of course, some children (and some adults, for that matter) are unable to put their feelings into words, or benefit sufficiently through talk therapy. Counselors can apply art therapy, play therapy, and many other less verbal forms of engagement to help such patients work through their trauma and cope effectively.²
Bringing People Together
Just as with kids and adults, sometimes a counselor’s role isn’t to be there to heal everyone, but to facilitate bringing survivors, families, and communities together to heal themselves.²
Typically, counseling in normal settings is individual-focused, setting goals and tracking progress over a longer period of time. Crisis counseling does not always have the benefit of such long-term perspectives and recurring contact. In the wake of a tragedy, sometimes the best way to help people is to get members of the affected community to connect with one another, and heal together. This can be a matter of organizing survivor groups, leading group therapy sessions, providing resources to parents and families, or collaborating with community leaders who are better positioned to identify and reach out to the people who most need care.²
By getting your Master of the Arts in Counseling, you can help guide individuals, families, and whole communities toward recovery in the wake of a tragedy. The need for passionate, committed crisis counselors is constant, and the opportunity to make a difference in lives is immeasurable.