Everyone remembers the disturbing images from the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012 after a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 first-grade children. It was traumatic for all of us, but what was it like to actually be a member of that community?
Today’s guest, Melissa Glaser, worked for 20 months as a coordinator for the Newtown Recovery and Resiliency Team, a group of mental health professionals, funded by a Department of Justice grant, who worked in partnership with local recovery providers, community organizations, and town employees to provide services to over 900 people immediately affected.
Melissa shares with us what life was like in Newtown in the days and weeks after the devastation. She tells us about what the media presence felt like, and gives recommendations for how journalists should deal with future school shootings. She also describes the influx of volunteers and donations in to the community, some helpful, some not, and advises listeners on how to make sure their urge to help doesn’t end up hurting.
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Guest information for ‘Sandy Hook Trauma’ Podcast Episode
Melissa Glaser is a licensed professional counselor who’s been providing clinical psychotherapy services for the past 28 years. While maintaining a private practice, Melissa has held an array of positions in the field of psychology including several clinical leadership positions in non-profit organizations and stints in an urban hospital emergency room and an urban city school-based health center. She took a leave from her work as the Director of Behavioral Health for Catholic Charities to serve on the Newtown Recovery and Resiliency Team.
She is the author of Healing a Community: Lessons for Recovery after a Large-Scale Trauma. You can learn more on her web site, MelissaGlaser.com.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Sandy Hook Trauma’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: Welcome to the Psych Central Podcast, where each episode features guest experts discussing psychology and mental health in every day plain language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. Today, I will be talking with Melissa Glaser, who is the author of Healing a Community: Lessons for Recovery after a Large-Scale Trauma. She’s a licensed professional counselor who has been providing clinical psychotherapy services for the last twenty-eight years, and she’s best known nationally for her work with the Newtown community after the tragic events that unfolded there. Melissa, welcome to the show.
Melissa Glaser: Hi. Thank you for having me and thank you for giving time to this topic.
Gabe Howard: Oh, it’s very much our pleasure. Let’s just fly right out of the gate. Can you explain why you’re well known for Newtown?
Melissa Glaser: I was in charge of all the community recovery work in Newtown after the Sandy Hook school shooting. So, I was brought in to oversee a large federal grant. The first of its kind that the Department of Justice had ever awarded to an entire community to address the recovery and trauma issues in the aftermath of a community tragedy.
Gabe Howard: Nationally, I think everybody felt the effects of the Sandy Hook shootings and what happened at Newtown, but obviously I live in Columbus, Ohio, and it affected me, Gabe Howard, personally, and that’s not my community. What was it like in that community? What was it like just driving past the school or knowing that you had friends or family or even children who went to that school? Can you kind of walk us through that a little bit? Because I imagine that’s much deeper than what I felt.
Melissa Glaser: Yeah, you know, I think the world was watching on their television screens. You know, the media was ever present and this was the first mass shooting with casualties that, most of you know, were very young children. So, there was a lot of attention being given to the community at the time. I live about, or at the time, lived about 30 minutes outside of Sandy Hook and was working as a behavioral health director for a large nonprofit organization. When the shooting took place, we were dispensing clinicians and writing grants to try to help the community in their time of need and also trying to provide firsthand assistance in an area that was unchartered territory. So, coming into the community, there were television cameras and reporters everywhere. It felt as if there was this black cloud hanging over the community that couldn’t quite get away from. There was a pervasive sense of sadness and distrust, an idea of who is here to help and who is value added, who is not. And how do you navigate all of this? So for the average citizen, the community was not this quiet quintessential town that you could walk down the street or walk your dog anymore. There was absolutely a sense of massive change with lots of individuals trying to navigate, but not quite knowing how to do that.
Gabe Howard: Would you say that since Sandy Hook, our ability to attend to the psychological and emotional needs of survivors of these mass shootings has improved? Is it the same? What have we learned?
Melissa Glaser: Yeah, I think we’ve come a tremendous way in understanding how to treat somebody that is trauma survivor and a victim of this kind of tragedy, this complicated grief and high level of trauma. So, when I came onboard to help in Sandy Hook, we didn’t realize then how important it was to treat both the mind and body. And we were learning that as we were going. And now there is such research and groundbreaking work done in that area. So that is tremendous. When I started my work in Sandy Hook, you know, I’m a trained cognitive behavioral therapist. I came on board thinking that that’s a lot of the work that we were going to be doing. And in fact, learned that, you know, most people in acute stages of trauma, CBT work is not going to be effective, that there is still such a state of just regulation that we we have to regulate them and we have to do that by using strategies and treatments that really speak to the body. So, things like music therapy and art therapy and meditation and yoga, some of the neuro feedback strategies, were going to be as important as a CBT work. And sometimes those had to be administered first to get a person into the right state of mind that they could then put language to their story and their experience, but they couldn’t do that first. Now we know that and people that are really well versed in trauma treatment are using an array of treatments to help somebody. In my book, I call it layering. You know, that’s what we learned to do, that there wasn’t necessarily one treatment that helped every individual. And often we had to use several treatments and layer them in the right way to be effective.
Gabe Howard: With Sandy Hook, the catalyst for this kind of research and change? Or was this something that was, you know, maybe talked about on a lesser scale? Or did this all come from, you know, this particular tragedy, this kind of thinking?
Melissa Glaser: Yeah, I’m not sure Sandy Hook was a catalyst. I think, you know, there were a lot of experts that were just beginning to break through and expose the importance of thinking about trauma work in this way. But since Sandy Hook and so many other tragedies there. People are very interested now in the research and learning the techniques and understanding that in order to be effective in their practices, they have to go about it in this way. So I just think there’s been so much mass trauma. And so, we clinicians all know now everybody’s at a different place in their needs. And you have to really open yourself up to understanding and training to meet people where they’re at.
Gabe Howard: From a professional standpoint, how should the aftermath of a school shooting be handled differently from other tragedies? Because I know that a lot of people, they sort of seem like the response to a tragedy is one size fits all. It doesn’t matter. The tragedy here is how you handle it.
Melissa Glaser: Yeah, you know, I write about how it’s important to identify who your community is. So, working in a community where there’s a school shooting versus a community like Boston, where the marathon bombing took place there. There are lots of similarities, but so many dynamics that you have to address that could be very different in a school shooting situation. You know, you have to remember that these are children and families and parents who have lost their child. So, you have to address grief on that level. There were many, many, many other children and adults in the building when it happened that are going to be severely impacted, that there needs to be a sense of. We called it, you know, hardening and security. So all of a sudden you have to start thinking about security measures for that school and every other school in the community. And then the dynamics of things like how do we get back to educating the surviving children while there’s such a sense of trauma that hasn’t been taken care of still in the air? How do you tell teachers that have just experienced this firsthand in the matter of maybe a couple of weeks, they have to get back into the classroom and teach? And how do you address parents who now have no idea if sending their kids off to school is going to be safe or not? Even on that level, you know, parents were overthinking everything. Is it safe for my child to go to school? Is it safe for my child to go on a play date that I never would have thought about after school? Is it as I’m driving my child into school am I driving them to their death? So, all kinds of dynamics that come with addressing that setting.
Gabe Howard: And I think that we saw the ripple effects of that nationally, why a lot of people ask that question.
Melissa Glaser: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: I think that universally we saw schools as a safe place for children. And after this event and other events, we now no longer feel that schools are, necessarily. There’s a little bit of doubt in there. Whereas there were zero doubts. If we’re feeling this all over the country, it must be a thousand times more for the actual community that it happened in. How did you work with those teachers? Because I’m not sure that I would want to go back.
Melissa Glaser: Yes, and I think there were a lot of emotional issues in the air around that. Most of the teachers, some did not, but most did go back and some of them went back because they had this sense of obligation or even a sense of survivor’s guilt. You know, I survived and some of my co-workers did not. So how can I not go back, even though I’m still so dis regulated and struggling so much and don’t know if I can do it, but do I really have a choice? So we heard from a lot of teachers that felt like their needs were not addressed appropriately, that they were expected to go back in to school three weeks after the shooting into a new school setting, you know, where they were unfamiliar and if they were not given the tools that they felt they needed to address the concerns. So, my role in Sandy Hook was actually, you know, my official role started a year and a half after the tragedy. That’s how long it took for this grant to be approved.
Gabe Howard: Wow. So, the first year and a half they had
Melissa Glaser: Yes.
Gabe Howard: Less.
Melissa Glaser: Well, they had less. You know, there was an educational grant on the federal government level that was in place. But interestingly, I was hearing pretty continuously from teachers saying our needs haven’t been met. And we are still really struggling and we’re doing the best that we can. But on a day to day basis, I feel like we’re crumbling a bit. So, it gives you a sense of. There’s so many wonderful teachers that did go back in and we’re doing a tremendous job. But they were questioning themselves is what I’m seeing in front of me the result of a child that’s traumatized or is this just typical developmental acting out? You know, when I’m disassociating because I hear a loud noise outside and I feel like, oh, my gosh, you know, what is that? Could this be another tragedy? Or when we have a lockdown drill and then I feel like I’m not myself and I’m not really present for the next two days afterwards. How do we manage that?
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Gabe Howard: We’re back talking to Melissa Glaser about her work at Newtown. So you had said that you arrived 18 months later by the time that you arrived. Was there a significant number of children pulled from school or a significant number of teachers who had quit? What did that look like? By the time you got there?
Melissa Glaser: Yeah, some teachers were relocated to another school in the district, they were offered that option. Some teachers did leave teaching and didn’t come back. But the majority of the teachers did go back to this new ad hoc school until the town decided what they were going to do in terms of rebuilding. You know, I think most parents did send their kids back to the school. Some pulled them out and went to private schools. It was another elementary school in the community and they had the option of sending their child there. But the majority of students did return. And again, the community came together in that way in terms of, you know, not wanting to be identified as this community that was falling apart and couldn’t move forward. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the pieces to take care of, you know, the fallout were in place.
Gabe Howard: The one of the things that you’ve talked about throughout this episode is that all eyes were on Newtown.
Melissa Glaser: Um-hmm.
Gabe Howard: That was just national media coverage, a lot of press just the whole world was watching. In the immediate wake of a tragedy like this, do you have any recommendations for how survivors or communities should deal with the media and the press?
Melissa Glaser: Yeah, you know, I still see it happening all the time. I’ll turn on the news after a tragedy and I’ll often see a reporter with a microphone that’s being thrust in front of a victim or somebody that was highly impacted in such an acute time when you can look at that person and hear what they’re saying and know that they are so vulnerable and in a state of dysregulation and confusion. And I think that does a clear amount of damage in itself. And I often want to, you know, yell back off and there’s time for this. You know, there were, I think, a lot of individuals that felt compelled to talk when asked and thought they were ready to tell their story, but they really weren’t. And afterwards, maybe had regrets or felt like things were not portrayed the way they had hoped or even thought they took advantage of my lost loved one. I always want to say to an individual in that situation, there’s plenty of time to tell your story. And if you tell your story two months later, it’s still as important, maybe more important. So, you know, the media has they have to fill time. And it’s a tricky line to walk because the world does want to know. They do want to be supportive. We do want to keep people aware and abreast of these tragedies. But I think we have to be really careful of creating more damage with individuals that are so impacted.
Gabe Howard: I really like that answer. I think it’s a fair answer because you’re right, people do want to know what’s going on and we do want to bring this to light, but we also don’t want to re traumatize anybody or impact their healing. So, we’re I’m sure that’s a very difficult line to walk if you’re the media, in their defense. I’m not trying to defend the media. I’m just saying I it’s tough. They would also
Melissa Glaser: Right.
Gabe Howard: Be accused of, you know, not reporting it if they didn’t. But, yeah, I don’t think anybody wants to see a microphone thrust in the face of, you know, a traumatized child or a victim or somebody who just lost their child. Those were some of the most heartbreaking images that I ever saw. And it does it kind of makes you feel a little. I mean, it. These are just these are just big, big, big images.
Melissa Glaser: Yes. And you know, when you constantly you’re hearing things like a reporter saying, tell us what the experience was, tell us what you just went through. I as a clinician want to say, well, why is that value added? You know, we don’t need to have the individual relive that right now. Right. They’re not they don’t have the supports. And, you know, this the emotional strength to be doing that right now, it’s not healthy. And it’s I don’t think it’s necessarily information that the rest of the world is going to gain value from. So, it is tricky.
Gabe Howard: It is it’s very tricky, and I noticed that and I’ve noticed that when something gets this kind of attention, one of the positive things that happens is that people come to help. There’s lots of, you know, volunteerism and support. But I also know that, you know, it’s a double-edged sword to many people. Helping can be negative. And do you have any advice for people who are stepping in to help a community heal after a tragedy? Not even necessarily as a volunteer, like at your level. I mean, what do people need to keep in mind?
Melissa Glaser: Yeah, you know, I read it a little bit about, you know, we had this saying we called a lot of people coming in SUV’s, Spontaneous Uninvited Visitors. And the reason for that was lots of people came in with good intent. You know, either making promises or wanting to help in their own way. But many of those individuals, what they brought to the process either made things more chaotic or could be damaging if they didn’t deliver what they promised. If they weren’t well trained in the work, if they came in and left prematurely and didn’t follow through and see the work through. So, on top of all of that, the town was flooded with material items, gift cards and teddy bears and blankets and paintings. And, you know, all kinds of school supplies to the point where that became a huge undertaking to manage. They had to rent out a warehouse to store all of this. You know, the post office was so inundated that became an issue. There was no place to put the items that were coming in. And most of the items honestly were not helpful. And when they were finally distributed from this warehouse a year later, they caused sometimes more rift between families and individuals than good recovery. Work is very expensive. And I think if people are looking to help or want to donate, money is probably the best way to do that. And to find out where in the community the organized foundation or foundations are that can distribute funds to the right people for their trauma recovery. But otherwise, people were setting up shop in Newtown, promising to provide help, and some of them were not vetted, they were not equipped or well-trained in the work that they were promising to do.
Gabe Howard: It reminds me of the phrase that my grandmother always said, which is the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Melissa Glaser: Yeah. Yeah.
Gabe Howard: You know, if you think, oh, this is so bad, I must be able to help. Then it becomes more about you and less about the people that you’re trying to help. And there needs to be a balance there.
Melissa Glaser: That’s exactly right.
Gabe Howard: No matter how much good you want to do, wanting to do good doesn’t equal doing good. And I think we see that a lot. From tragedies like this one, even to natural disasters. And, you know, where people to show up and they’re like, “Hi, I need food and clothing, but I’m gonna help.” Well, yeah. Now we have to feed and clothe you.
Melissa Glaser: That’s right.
Gabe Howard: Do you know how to operate heavy equipment? Or, you know, in the case of like a natural disaster or a big fire, it’s like, “Well, no, I have none of those skills, but I’m here to help.”
Melissa Glaser: Right.
Gabe Howard: We don’t want to tell people not to help because that seems bad. You know, please don’t help when something bad happens. No, that doesn’t seem like the message, but maybe be realistic about the help that you can provide and be willing to step back if somebody asks you to is probably an excellent message for, you know, spontaneous helpers.
Melissa Glaser: Yeah. You know, I think these tragedies create lots of conflicting thoughts, ideas and messages, and sometimes you have to hold back a bit, you know, be a little less impulsive about where you’re putting your efforts and to watch how things unfold. And that gives you a better idea maybe where the needs are. Maybe find the right avenues to ask more questions. It could become a little more educated. And we make a decision about how you want to help and whether that’s really going to be value added.
Gabe Howard: Wonderful. Melissa. We are out of time. I can’t thank you enough for being on this show. Please tell us about your book. Tell us where we can find it. Please give us the elevator pitch.
Melissa Glaser: Yes. Yes. So, the book is Healing a Community: Lessons for Recovery after a Large-Scale Trauma. My name is Melissa Glaser. And if you Google my name, it’ll come up. But you can also find the book on Amazon. I have a Web site, MelissaGlaser.com where you can get more information.
Gabe Howard: Well, we appreciate you being here. Thank you again for all of the work that you’ve done. And please continue doing it. You know, large scale trauma and tragedies, unfortunately, are part of life. And when we don’t handle them correctly and we ignore them or we don’t look into them, it can take a bad situation and make it that much worse, that much quicker.
Melissa Glaser: Yeah. Ok. Well, thank you again for bringing some awareness to this topic.
Gabe Howard: Oh, it’s our pleasure. Thank you, everybody, for hanging out with us this week. We really appreciate you again. Special thanks to Melissa for being here. Remember, wherever you downloaded this podcast, please give us as many stars as humanly possible. Use your words, write us a review, email, Facebook, social media, Instagram. There are so many social media sites that even if you just share it on one, that’ll be like thirty-five thousand likes. So again, thank you all. And remember everyone, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling anytime, anywhere, simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everybody next week.
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Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is also one of the co-hosts of the popular show, A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. As a speaker, he travels nationally and is available to make your event stand out. To work with Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.