Helping the Helpers in the Aftermath of Horror…

By Dr. Tania Glenn

There is no doubt that the events in Las Vegas on Sunday night have impacted and will continue to impact first responders. There is no doubt that they need help now, next week, next month and next year. The key is to offer the right kind of help at the right time. I post this article asking those to help the helpers to please pause, assess and do what is right.

Those who responded to this mass shooting on Sunday night have brains and bodies that entered total fight for flight mode. As they did this, their prefrontal cortexes in their brains shut down. Logic, math, memory, focus, concentration and any other complex human functioning brain activity took a back seat to instincts, training, muscle memory and the desire to fight and save lives. This is a significant biochemical change and disruption to the normal daily functioning of first responders. Today, the prefrontal cortexes of those first responders are just beginning to turn on again.

Why is this significant? It is SO significant because today first responders are having difficulty figuring out basic things, are not able to make decisions rapidly and certainly are NOT ready to “process” what happened Sunday night.

This is the typical thought process of a first responder today: Do I wash this uniform, throw it away, or turn it in as evidence? I have no idea. I will just deal with this later. Where are my keys? Why do I keep locking them in my car? I need groceries. I don’t want to go to the grocery store! I’m not even hungry yet and I haven’t eaten since Sunday. Why are my kids yelling so loud? Why is the media getting it all wrong? I am frustrated. I am tired.

The priorities of first responders right now are to get through the day, the shift and to somehow figure out how to turn those prefrontal cortexes back on. If those who are responding to help the helpers put themselves in the hearts and minds of the first responders, they will get it right. If they don’t, they will make a lot of responders very angry. Given this, I ask that peer support, CISM teams and clergy consider the following:

• If you have self-deployed, please go home. Assistance should only come in at the request of an agency or agencies. If you simply show up, you are one more thing to deal with.

• If you have been requested, be sure to check in with leadership and follow instructions exactly as they tell you to.


• Triage the situation and do what people need – pass out water bottles, bring them food or the snacks they want, help them clean out their ambulances, firetrucks and patrol cars, help them with the daily tasks they need to get done. Help them figure out what to do with that uniform. Run to the grocery store for them. Take them out for a meal. Go for a walk with them. Get busy but don’t force them to sit and talk.

• As time progresses and first responders have moved from the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (food, water, clothing and shelter) up the pyramid to social support and psychological care, plan to educate first responders on reactions to stress and self-care. Get a pertinent and relevant brief ready and do a stellar job of delivering it! Normalize those reactions and offer solutions. Open those briefs up to discussion and questions. Continue to provide information, education, referrals and a compassionate, non-judgmental ear when first responders are ready to talk. Encourage all first responders to get help and continue to ask for help until their resilience is restored.

• Do NOT force first responders to talk, sit in large groups and rehash everything that happened in front of a bunch of others with different experiences, or ask them what the worst moment was for them.

• Ultimately, I ask that if you are helping the helpers, please respect their dignity, understand their true needs and refrain from forcing them to say or do anything they don’t want to do. Please don’t rush them. Understand that the human brain is resilient and designed to heal. First responders can and will heal when they are ready, and if they get stuck, they need to be able to get assistance from those they trust. If they have experienced bad help, this significantly diminishes the likelihood that first responders will reach out for further help.

Crisis work is extremely important, but no help is better than bad help.

Please don’t contribute to the problem.

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