Newtown, Parkland suicides point to need for mental health recovery plans
NEWTOWN - A new book by the trauma team leader who guided the Sandy Hook response says every town needs a mental health recovery plan like the one built here in the upheaval of grief.
“It’s a road map that outlines the lessons we learned with the takeaway that in the wake of so many tragedies, Sandy Hook gives us a better understanding of what’s important to focus on,” says Melissa Glaser, a psychotherapist.
Her new book, “Healing a Community,” recounts the 21 months that she directed the federally funded Newtown Recovery and Resiliency Team.
The book, which identifies the complications and institutional barriers that set back recovery and multiplied Newtown’s trauma over the slaying of 26 first-graders and educators at Sandy Hook School, comes at a time of heightened awareness about the deep reaches of mass shootings on communities.
The high-profile suicide of a Sandy Hook father who lost his daughter in the 2012 massacre, and the suicides of two teenagers who attended the Florida high school where 17 students and staff were killed in 2018, made national headlines last week.
The suicide of Jeremy Richman ended the story of a man who had turned his grief into good by advancing research about the roots of violence in the brain. His wife, Jennifer Hensel, said he “succumbed to a grief he could not escape.”
Glaser’s book, which is written for clinicians, also comes at a time when local leaders are assessing the recovery effort in Newtown, where a four-person center for town-wide health and wellness was established after federal funding ran out for Glaser’s trauma team in 2016.
Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose daughter was among the children murdered at Sandy Hook School, said last week that well-meaning people still don’t understand the depth of grief families of loss suffer in Sandy Hook.
“Everyone wants so desperately for you to be okay — that you can never, ever say you’re not,” Marquez-Greene tweeted. “This culture is grief averse and our victim support service structure sucks.”
Newtown’s top elected leader said a community wellness survey is already being conducted to gauge where mental health services are working, and where more resources are needed.
The town is also interviewing candidates for a new administrator whose duties will include overseeing the Newtown Center for Support and Wellness, which replaced the federal trauma team.
“The successor agency we have now took some of the lessons we learned from the recovery and resiliency team,” said Dan Rosenthal, Newtown’s First Selectman. “But we are always in the business of constant improvement because people change, and because if we ever said there was nothing more we could do, that would be frightening.”
Glaser’s book, which came out in mid-February, treats the lessons learned here as cautionary tales in the hope that other communities confronting a tragedy can anticipate the obstacles and maximize recovery.
Among the biggest obstacles Glaser discusses are complications caused by media scrutiny, the young age of the victims, the brutality of the crime, the polarity of the political debate about guns and conspiracy extremists.
Glaser also revisits the pain, anger and despair that the massacre brought to Newtown, while documenting the healing, compassion and hope families embraced, in part because of the six-member trauma team.
In doing so Glaser had to balance the need to obscure certain details to preserve confidentiality with the need to reveal as much detail as possible to be a useful case study that other communities could duplicate.
“We were very careful not to expose anybody,” Glaser said of the risk she took by writing the book. “We knew there was a lot of valuable information that was important to share.”
Pat Llodra, the former First Selectman, who lead the town’s recovery before, during and after the trauma team’s work in Newtown, said she had only read excerpts from Glaser’s book.
“This was unchartered territory and trauma with deep emotional pain,” Llodra said last week. “Mrs. Glaser brought skills and professionalism to the work of the recovery and resiliency team - and I will be forever grateful to her for the efforts she put forth for our town.”
A case study
Glaser’s book devotes nearly a whole chapter to describing the affect local politics had on the trauma team’s effort to reach as many of Newtown’s 28,000 people as possible with the message that help was available.
Glaser did so, she says, not to point fingers and even less to suggest that political leaders were willfully resisting professional help. Rather, Glaser said, her intent was to prevent leaders in other communities unfortunate enough to be in a situation such as Newtown’s from needlessly setting back treatment efforts by setting unreasonable timetables for recovery.
Leaders need to build trauma recovery plans that last 10-15 years, Glaser pointed out.
Leaders also need to understand what recovery looks like, Glaser said.
Recovery from a complicated trauma such as Sandy Hook is not a return to normal, Glaser writes, but a return to life that is not dominated by post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Glaser notes that school administrators in Newtown were slow to recognize the need teachers had for more recovery services than they were being offered.
Mary Ann Jacob, who was an assistant librarian the day a gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook School and committed the worst crime in Connecticut history, agreed with Glaser’s assessment.
“Services were blocked for us by people who were not in the building that day,” Jacob said. “(Administrators) had an obligation to engage the people in the building and find out our needs, and they dropped the ball.”
Teachers did eventually receive extra services, at the urging of Glaser.
Llodra said Newtown’s administration put “great heart in trying to respond to the many challenges and issues that arose through the trauma.”
“One benefit of retrospective vision is acknowledging that some other decisions and choices could have been made which might have better served the recovery process,” Llodra said.
Glaser’s book follows similar efforts by leaders in town to distill lessons from the Sandy Hook massacre to make classrooms safer and to manage post-traumatic stress in police departments after mass shootings.
Former schools Superintendent Joe Erardi delivered a report to the state in 2016, for example, that called for better early identification of students with mental illness and for social and emotional learning curriculum.
Similarly, former police Chief Michael Kehoe contributed to a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice manual about lessons from the Sandy Hook massacre called “Preparing for the Unimaginable.”
Glaser said she hopes no one in charge of recovery after a community tragedy has to face her dilemma again.
“I didn’t have a roadmap,” she said. “There was nothing to help me.”