Helplessness, shock and anger.
These are words that Red Cross mental health volunteers heard over and over again from the student survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“All of them are so angry,” said Donna Cain-Hlenski, a Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer who returned to Huntington from Parkland on Sunday. “That’s where our skills come in.”
Cain-Hlenski is one of a few Long Island-based Red Cross volunteers called on for her mental health expertise in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland tragedy.
When a mass shooting or major disaster happens, the American Red Cross has a team of mental health experts who can be deployed to help local officials. These experts, Cain-Hlenski among them, have special training that prepares them for mass casualty incidents. They also get a raw look at the emotional wounds that mass shootings leave in their wake.
“Many of the kids were closed up in the rooms, they heard the shots, they would actually be in bathrooms [during the shooting], so they told us their stories,” Cain-Hlenski said. “What we would do next is evaluate their needs.”
When the Red Cross arrives on the scene after a mass shooting, officials immediately set up a family assistance center where they can coordinate with state and local agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide therapeutic support in the immediate days after a crisis strikes.
“If you can validate someone in regard to what they’re going through, that’s the first step,” Cain-Hlenski said. “I think that sets people on the right path: [telling them,] You’re not crazy for feeling this way.”
Red Cross mental health experts are trained to spot the most vulnerable people who may require more intensive follow, officials said. Then experts like Cain-Hlenski can connect the families with mental health professionals, social workers and other types of assistance from local agencies.
The goal is to lay the groundwork for more long-term assistance after the Red Cross leaves. A typical emergency deployment is 7 to 10 days, though it can be shorter in mass casualty incidents, officials said.
It was also important for the volunteers to help parents in Parkland understand what their children are going through and prepare them to help those kids get through what comes next, said Red Cross volunteer P.J. Tedeschi of Lake Grove.
“A lot of people deal with survivor guilt,” she said. “Some people felt like they should have helped people when all they could do was run.”
Tedeschi, who responded to the Las Vegas shooting in October, and Cain-Hlenski, who responded to the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, both said that they saw something different in the Florida students. Somehow, many had begun the healing process through anti-gun activism in the days since the shooting.
“They felt like they were doing something,” Tedeschi said. “They didn’t want other young people to experience what they experienced. They also felt like it was a way to honor their fallen classmates and to do productive things that [the fallen] they were no longer able to do.”