Local hospital administrators, mental health professionals and Red Cross and public safety officials met Tuesday to begin plans for a local crisis response team.
The team would go into action in the case of a disaster, such as a tornado, riot or plane crash. Members would counsel emotionally traumatized survivors and rescue workers.
“The Branch Davidian complex fire raised our community awareness of the need for disaster planning” for mental health counseling, said psychologist Eleanor Flynn, who is co-chairing the task force to form the team. “It was not as bad as the Killeen massacre, where so many people were touched by the tragedy, but it made us aware it could happen here.”
Co-chairwoman Vivian Stidvent, a licensed professional counselor with the Heart of Texas Mental Health Mental Retardation agency, said, “Everything we’ve learned about community-disaster-treatment planning says the time to plan is before it happens.”
She described the critical debriefing process at the time of the tragedy, saying that others who have gone through similar experiences can help people still in shock.
“I’m afraid we’ll really delude ourselves if we think it won’t ever happen again,” Waco Police Chief Gil Miller said of local disasters. “We turn to the papers and CNN on a daily basis and see where someone has started shooting or see a disaster such as the floods.”
Mental health counseling helped local law enforcement officers during the Branch Davidian siege at Mount Carmel, Miller said. Many officers had sleep disturbances and depression because they wondered if they could have done something to have prevented the tragedy, he said.
“They weren’t directly involved in it, but it was simply because of the fact they were there,” Miller said. “We found ourselves unprepared for the psychological strain to follow.”
Waco-McLennan County Emergency Management Office director Rodney Baden said that if team members write a mental health plan, it could become a part of the county’s emergency-management plan.
The existing plan, written by the late Mark Curtin and Harvey Henning, involves 23 different jurisdictions, he said.
“No other plan in the U.S. is as large as ours,” Baden said.
“We need to get others involved in the psychiatric portion of this,” he said. “Some people don’t want to admit they have a real problem.”
It may take years to write a proper crisis-response plan, he said. Yet, writing the plan won’t be enough, he said. He said it needs to be practiced as part of disaster drills and revised and updated regularly.
“This is the opposite of the Woody Allen syndrome,” in which a person receives therapy for a mental illness for years, Flynn said.
“Crisis counseling is real brief and real effective. We’ll catch a person at the moment of crisis and save him enormous trouble down the line.”
When people are traumatized by a disaster, she said, they typically experience an enormous amount of rage and fear. This shatters the illusion that the world is a safe place.
“People who are traumatized are scared,” Flynn said.
“Their sense of safety is just destroyed.”
But effective counseling soon after the disaster can help restore a person’s sense of well-being, she added.