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Treating Mental Trauma: Lessons From Tragedy


Tom Olbrich is the disaster response coordinator at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health in Denver, Colorado. He provided counseling in organized support groups after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. Mr. Olbrich said that for many in the area, the incident in Aurora brought back memories of 13 years ago.

TOM OLBRICH: Some of the images are very similar - crying kids, helicopters. Some of the images bring back the memories of Columbine very strongly.

SIMON: Mr. Olbrich, what did you and your colleagues learn from Columbine, that you think it's important to remember here?

OLBRICH: Oh, my. This response is more a marathon than a sprint. And what that means is, you don't rush in with all kinds of resources, initially. But everyone's going to react according to their own timetable. People are still numb for a while, and in shock. You offer immediate response to people directly impacted by the incident, but there are other people who are going to have needs somewhere down the line.

SIMON: And let's understand this plainly. You're not just talking about the people who were in that movie theater and were able to escape, or survive.

OLBRICH: Absolutely. There's a ripple effect in situations like this. With Columbine, the ripple effect was huge. I don't know how comparable it will be but certainly, for the immediate community who knew these individuals. And I think because of the almost-instant access to images and stories from survivors - those become available in a matter of minutes; and we know from 9/11, repeated exposure to the same images, over and over again, can have a traumatic impact almost the same as actually having been there.

SIMON: Yeah. Mr. Olbrich, what is there to do?

OLBRICH: I think immediately, you want to offer people support and comfort because this is going to come in waves for people, emotionally. One of the things after Columbine that was really helpful to people, was a lot of restaurants in the community donated food. There were places they could go; they could eat and be with friends, and just have some basic comfort.

SIMON: May I ask, Mr. Olbrich, are there things that you - and other professionals like you - do differently now, as a result of what you learned at Columbine?

OLBRICH: I think so. I think one of the biggest differences is really, not to over-pathologize people's reactions. We may be all over the board, in terms of our emotional reactions, and all of those reactions need to be viewed as normal responses to a terrible tragedy. We don't want to pathologize that. We don't want to tell people there's something wrong with them. Rather, we want to say: You're having a normal reaction to something awful, and we're going to try to support you and help you get through it. We've also learned about how resilient people are. If you look at it, this whole field of grief counseling - whatever you want to call it - is a relatively new thing. And somehow, people got through disasters centuries ago, and seemed to do OK and get better. And so, people can do very well and get through these things, and come out of it on the other side with a better perspective on life and feeling stronger - maybe not happier, but feeling stronger as individuals; that we understand now what's really important, and how to take care of ourselves, and how to take care of each other.

SIMON: Tom Olbrich is the disaster response coordinator for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health in Denver. Thanks for being with us.

OLBRICH: I'm happy to be with you.


SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.