Flood of mental health volunteers brought help and challenges
The need for counseling encompassed the entire community
Janet Holland, head of Community Health Alliance in Roseburg, was speaking in Astoria before a group of 40 county mental health professionals in a hotel meeting room when she got the call on the morning of Oct. 1.
She had told her staff that if there was an emergency to call her cell phone three times. When she felt her phone buzzing the third time, she stopped her presentation and told her audience she needed to take the call. Her operations director was on the phone. First, the director said her own daughter and Holland’s son, students at Umpqua Community College, were all right. Then she described the shootings.
Holland asked the mental health group she had been speaking to, Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc., to prepare to send counselors and asked two of them to return with her to Roseburg. Then she jumped in her car and began the nearly five-hour drive to her home, now a stunned and wounded community in need of her agency’s help.
Initially, the demand seemed overwhelming. There was not a single counselor on the UCC campus. The college recently had seen its only two counselors leave for other jobs. Just two weeks before the shootings, the college had signed a contract with Holland’s agency to provide counseling.
Now her staff suddenly was faced with providing crisis counseling to UCC students and others throughout the tight-knit town.
Their immediate priority would be to help grieving and shaken students and staff and their families regain a sense of normalcy and safety as they processed the tragedy. Counselors also would be on the look out for anyone needing more intense, long-term help.
Holland would soon learn one of her biggest challenges as the health alliance’s executive director would not be finding enough mental health volunteers, but rather organizing and vetting the flood of volunteers who arrived from across the state and country.
She also recognized the need to coordinate their efforts with work underway by police, ambulance services, hospitals and college officials, including professionals from elsewhere in the state and country. She learned firsthand the importance of having a predetermined line of communication and joint command structure.
Still, Holland was able to organize her staff by cell phone as she rushed back to Roseburg in a car driven by the health alliance’s board chair, Dr. Christine Seals. Holland directed her counselors to cancel non-emergency appointments and head to Mercy Medical Center, where shooting victims were treated, and to the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where surviving students and staff were bused from campus.
At the fairgrounds, her staff and other mental health volunteers passed out water, provided cell-phone chargers and listened to students and staff who wanted to talk.
“People just pitched in,” said Holland. “The first 48 hours were just a blur.”
In the aftermath of a traumatic event like the UCC shootings, mental health workers provide psychological first aid, helping people regain their emotional balance, experts say. Witnesses may be restless, jumpy, forgetful, sleepless and depressed. Counselors can help them see these reactions are typical and steer them to routines that will help them regain a sense of normalcy.
When Holland reached the fairgrounds on the Thursday evening of the shooting, students, staff and their families were gone, but her staff was still there finding ways to help by picking up pizza boxes, water bottles and other litter.
“They cleaned up the whole area,” she said. “No one asked them to do it.”
Help pours in
More help poured into the community that evening and the next two days. The American Red Cross dispatched a group of disaster mental health volunteers. So did the U.S. Public Health Service, the VA Roseburg Health Care System, Community Mental Health Program agencies and the State of Oregon. The governor’s office, the University of Oregon and other organizations also sent people to help.
About 16 highly trained and experienced trauma clinicians from the U.S. Public Health Services arrived Friday night from all over the country — Oklahoma, Texas, Alaska, Virginia and other places. Dressed in blue jumpsuits, they helped local professionals organize a mental health response plan. Holland said the federal workers wisely advised her and her team to first make use of all of the out-of-town volunteers so they could save their local staff for the long haul.
One challenge was to make sure that the mental health volunteers, who included local pastors and people with therapy dogs, were licensed and qualified to be providing aid, Holland said. One man said he was a psychiatrist with Oregon Health & Science University, which could provide help, but didn’t have any business cards. His identity had to be verified with another psychiatrist employed by CHA. One group even wanted to bring therapy ponies onto the UCC campus. The therapy dogs were allowed at UCC and Mercy Medical Center, but the un-vetted volunteers were told to stand by, Holland said. The ponies were turned down.
The mental health groups established drop-in counseling centers on the UCC campus and at centers around the area. Some workers also visited places like Costco and local schools.
The tragedy was personal for just about everyone — including the counselors and first responders — because just about everyone in the town of 22,000 had some connection to UCC, which enrolls about 5,000 students in the course of the year. In addition to Holland, other counselors, physicians, health-care workers and first responders had family members attending UCC. Everybody knew somebody who knew somebody affected in the tragedy.
For two weeks, disaster mental health volunteers from the American Red Cross served beside local pastors as counselors in a drop-in center at The Ford Family Foundation headquarters. A UCC dean sent over a good part of the UCC faculty and staff for counseling.
The Foundation set up a private entrance for the UCC faculty and staff seeking counseling. Security at the entrance turned away national media reporters looking for a story.
Elsewhere, Community Health Alliance and other counselors explicitly offered mental health services to the first responders who found the murdered teacher and students on campus, to the crew who went in to clean up the massacre scene in Snyder Hall, and to a construction crew working on UCC projects. Holland even helped a reporter covering the tragedy.
“I probably spent a half hour talking to her about her own trauma response,” she said.
An American Red Cross counselor comforted a UCC professor who worried about going back to the classroom. “What am I going to say?” the professor asked. “How can I teach? It just seems irrelevant.”
Counselors also talked to people who experienced the tragedy up close and witnessed “unimaginable things,” as one of them described the events.
Months of counseling
In the weeks after the shooting, the Community Health Alliance set up the Umpqua Wellness Center, which would provide free counseling services related to the UCC tragedy for five months. The alliance joined forces with the Oregon Health Authority, Architrave Health (a health-care organization) and Adapt (a behavioral health provider) to establish and staff the center.
The center gave the state its first chance to deploy a team from the State Emergency Registry of Volunteers in Oregon, a team of retired psychologists, social workers, counselors and psychiatric nurse practitioners.
By mid-February, clinic volunteers had worked more than 655 hours, providing 252 treatment hours and 158 counseling sessions to 57 clients.
The state registry of volunteers proved to be a “great resource,” said Holland. “If there is another incident, this group could be mobilized anywhere across the state.”
Mental Health: Lessons Learned
Develop an emergency plan before you need it. Precious time was wasted as organizers figured out how to coordinate the response. A predetermined line of communication and joint command structure will allow for an immediate, coordinated response.
Tap outside resources first. Community Health Alliance first deployed all of the out-of-town volunteers so it could save its local staff for the long haul.
Prepare to vet volunteers. Volunteers willing to help flooded the community, but it wasn’t always clear if they were licensed and qualified. Many were turned down.
Rely on pre-vetted help. Qualified disaster mental-health volunteers arrived from the American Red Cross, the U.S. Public Health Service, the VA Roseburg Health Care System and the State of Oregon. They were quickly deployed.
Provide counseling throughout the community. Make it as easy as possible for people to find help. The mental health groups established drop-in counseling centers on the UCC campus and around town.
Provide security. The national media, on a hunt for stories, followed some victims — even as they were seeking counseling. Counseling locations for the most vulnerable victims were kept private. Security monitored who was allowed in.
Reach out to first responders. Active shooter events, perhaps more than any other crime, impose extreme stress on responding police officers, according to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. First responders and health-care providers often feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness.