On April 20, 1999, two students in trenchcoats started shooting their fellow classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado. It only took minutes for them to kill thirteen people, and about twenty-five minutes later, they took their own lives.
Responding to the chaotic aftermath as a member of the Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Team that day was Joannie DeBrito, a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist. DeBrito was stationed at a nearby elementary school to assist students rescued from the high school. Once there, the teens answered questions about the shooting and were reunited with their parents.
“A large number of kids were clearly shaken,” DeBrito recalls, “but they appeared to be in a normal state of shock that resolved, for the most part, once they saw their family members. But one young woman was hysterical. We were curious about her reaction, because it was so different from the others.”
DeBrito and another mental health professional sat down with the teen, held her hand, and quietly questioned her since the police had instructed them to gather as much information as possible about what students had seen and heard. As they spoke with the student, they learned that in the past six months, this girl’s father had collapsed at church due to a heart attack, her mother had been severely injured at home, and her brother had been shot at work. As she spoke, nearby fellow students nodded as if to confirm the truth of her story.
“No place is safe,” the girl said through gasps of breath and hysterical tears. “I can’t go anywhere and be safe. Church isn’t safe, home isn’t safe, work isn’t safe, and now school isn’t safe. Where can I go to be safe?”
Since these things had happened, the teen had been having trouble sleeping, was having nightmares, and spent most of her time in her room so she could avoid anything that might be a threat to her safety. DeBrito and the other experienced mental health professional recognized these behaviors as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Every day, numerous events occur locally and globally that threaten the health and safety of human beings. Natural disasters, automobile accidents, physical and sexual abuse, and violent crimes are all examples of what we call traumatic events. But not every traumatic event causes a disorder. Most people can sort through the circumstances that threatened their life or safety, or that of someone else, even when those experiences left them feeling vulnerable and fearful. It’s what disaster specialists call resiliency: the ability to regain your mental and emotional stability when you’ve been knocked off balance by a stressful event.