On Saturday, December 15, 2012, the day after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Shaukat Khan, M.D., the chair of the Connecticut Psychiatric Society (CPS) Disaster Psychiatry Committee, organized the district branch’s disaster team. Over the ensuing week, team members provided psychological first aid or counseling to a community suffering from the tragic event.
Wooden angels are displayed as part of memorial to the shooting victims in Newtown, Conn., just days before Christmas.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Mental health professionals—social workers, nurses, licensed therapists, pastoral counselors, and school counselors, as well as the psychiatrists—all volunteered to help area residents at several locations in Newtown. Some of the psychiatrists recounted their experiences to Psychiatric News a few days later.
“We met beautiful little children, hearing their stories, meeting the parents and teachers, supporting them as much as we could,” said Khan, a psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Health System in West Haven and a clinical assistant professor at Yale. “We are possibly making some difference in their lives.”
One little boy, who was in another classroom during the shooting, arrived with his father and younger sister. He told Khan that he had a dream in which something bad was happening and he put his sister into a closet to save her. Later, speaking to Khan alone, the father broke down in tears from his own stress.
“It was a heartbreaking experience, with saddening encounters, but satisfying work,” he said.
Samya Hawley, M.D., is a child and adult psychiatrist who works with children at the Village for Families and Children in Hartford. She responded to an e-mail request for volunteers from the Connecticut chapter of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and worked a 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift at Newtown’s town hall, talking to whoever walked in the door.
These were brief encounters, she said. They were “more supportive and reflective, just letting people know that they were not alone and that in the community, people were there for each other.”
“In Newtown, everyone is two or three degrees removed from someone directly affected by the shooting,” said Sohrab Zahedi, M.D., another volunteer who worked a three-hour shift at the Reed Intermediate School on the Sunday after the attack.
The psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and others there did more than counseling, said Zahedi, a forensic psychiatrist at the Hartford Correctional Center.
“Often, we were offering guidance about what adults can do and how they could talk to their children about the event,” he explained. “These kids need to feel safe, and that means a return to a normal routine.”
He advised people to acknowledge the extraordinary nature of the crime. They should expect to cry or feel weird or angry and would likely see children expressing their emotions with occasional outbursts.
“Mainly, I listened,” said Zahedi. “Just having someone there to talk to was the most important thing for them.”
On a Sunday shift the weekend after the shooting, child psychiatrists worked with both children and adults, said Carolyn Drazinic, M.D., Ph.D., president-elect of the CPS and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
“It was a whole community pouring in to get help and counseling,” she said. “People all knew somebody affected by the tragedy.”
When people asked her how to talk to children, she suggested talking to them on their developmental level, speaking the truth, but not going into unneeded detail about the crime. Use of medications was generally discouraged, she said.
A training course in disaster psychiatry led by Khan and others and held just a month before the school shooting proved helpful, she noted. “We coordinated with the Red Cross,” she said. “That was essential for having the response be organized and helpful.”
The psychiatrists’ first week in Newtown was only the beginning, said Khan. “We’ll need to figure out how the CPS can help with follow-up and continuing care.”
Based on this experience, Khan hopes that APA will support more psychiatric disaster training for its district branches and push for greater inclusion of the topic in medical school and residency training. ■