The nightide hours of May 22, 2017 at Manchester Arena during an Arianna Grande concert, will be etched in our minds forever because of the suicide bombing by a 22-year old British Muslim using an improvised explosive device packed with deadly shrapnel to inflict lethal force upon innocent civilians. This coordinated attack perpetrated by a lone terrorist-bomber in Manchester, England claimed the lives of 22 concert goers and some parents who entered the arena to pick up their sons and daughters. There were at least 116 others that sustained serious mental and physical trauma who were at the epicenter of the Manchester, England terrorist attack. This critical incident is akin to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City; November 13, 2016 terrorist attacks in Paris; and the April 4, 2017 chemical attack on innocent Syrian civilians perpetrated by President Basher al-Assad’s regime. There are so many other horrific acts of human atrocity to list. Indeed, these critical events suggest that we are a world at war.

The common core of these tragedies suggest that first, there are those most affected by the mental and physical trauma at the epicenter. Secondly, there are those affect who are further away from ground zero; family, friends, and neighbors of the victims and survivors. Repeated terrorist attacks, both near and afar, suggest that we are vulnerable. It appears rationale to be vigilant, observant, and attuned to preparing and protecting our sense of self and safety within our homeland. The definition of terrorism and the goal itself is to create mass casualties, maximum loss of human life, and to generate panic, fear, anxiety, with a profound sense of helplessness.

 

A Paradigm Shift in Counseling and Psychology

Today, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in the counseling and psychology profession when it comes to disaster mental health response. Extraordinary stressful and traumatic events, both person-made and natural disasters, have accelerated worldwide within the last 16 years. These critical incidents have left emotional, physical, spiritual, and environmental scars upon our minds, bodies, and spirits. As we prepare for the next disaster how easily we have forgotten the cataclysmic event that took place on December 26, 2004 where a Tsunami and earthquake, registering 9.0 off the west coast of Northern Sumatra, injured and claimed the lives of millions of people. To date, thousands have not been found in countries that were affected such as Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Where did all the disaster mental health counselors, international volunteers, angels, and earthly saints go that descended upon these countries?  Did they have to retreat back home for the sake of their own emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being? Who has taken their place? The desolation left in the aftermath of these and other critical events creates a sort of historical trauma among world cultures.  It is essential to bring some meaning to person-made and natural disasters so as to let the healing process begin within ourselves and our culture.

 

Foundations of Disaster Mental Health Counseling

The foundation of my book Disaster Mental Health Counseling: Responding to Trauma in a Multicultural Context was inspired by my own experiences in critical incident and disaster mental health response. One particular experience that took place in Jonesboro, AR on March 24, 1998 formed the foundation for my life’s work. It was here where I served on the crisis response team for the Westside Middle School shootings where four students and one teacher were killed and 15 others were seriously injured by an 11 and 13 year old shooter. Since this time I have been trained in various crisis response models and have provided stress debriefings and group crisis response to persons employed in state and county government, private companies, day care centers and schools, persons in the media, survivors of brutal crimes, as well as individuals who have been at the epicenter of hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes.

Professional helpers must be prepared to handle any and all person-made and natural disasters that could potentially occur on the planet; fires, floods, hurricanes, tornados, drought, earthquakes, school shootings, and terrorist attacks such as at concerts, sporting events, and shopping malls. These critical incidents require our complete and full attention. It necessitates a high level of empathy and compassion serving survivors of such human tragedies. The ensuing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and the fight against terrorism are constant reminders of how fragile our mental and physical well-being are. For many, planet earth does not appear to be a safe place to live because of the multitude of natural and person-made disasters.

 

Empathy Fatigue

As mental health professionals, we must be in a constant state of disaster preparedness. I propose that many of us are experiencing the mental, physical, psychological, social, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion associated with empathy fatigue. Despite that most Americans may be far from the epicenter of such critical incidents, many are affected at some level of consciousness with global human tragedies. It is difficult to ignore as disaster scenarios are re-played on the nightly news, by quick-release television and Hollywood-style movies, and in the print and electronic media. We can watch such catastrophic events unfold in real time as they occur globally on a nightly basis. Despite, the enormous loss of human life, psychological grief, physical pain, and spiritual suffering, persons who do not work in disaster relief can keep these experiences at-a-distance. Watching from the sidelines or comforts of your living room is not an option for first responders and disaster mental health professionals.

In conclusion, the consequence of terrorism affects the planet as a whole. So, how do we come out of the darkness and into the light with intention to bring new meaning to healing trauma? As mental health counseling professionals we must learn new ways to facilitate good emotional, social, physical, psychological, spiritual, and occupational healing. Disaster Mental Health Counseling assists professionals to acquire the insight, knowledge, and skills to work optimally with individuals and groups that may be culturally different. This work overall honors the collective wisdom of indigenous cultural practices and philosophical beliefs of various world cultures and how they learn to heal from traumatic experiences.

About the Author

Mark A. Stebnicki, PhD, LPC, DCMHS, CRC, CCM, CCMC is a Professor and Coordinator of the Military and Trauma Counseling Certificate Program he developed in the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Services at East Carolina University. He holds a doctoral (Ph.D.) and master’s (M.S.) degree in rehabilitation counseling. Dr. Stebnicki is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in North Carolina and holds three national certifications; Diplomate in Clinical Mental Health Specialist (DCMHS) in Trauma Counseling through the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA); Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC); Certified Case Manager (CCM); and a Certified Clinical Military Counselor (CCMC). In 2016, Dr. Stebnicki developed a military counseling training program for the state of North Carolina. The credential, The Certified Clinical Military Counselor (CCMC), trains professional counselors to work with the medical, psychosocial, vocational, and mental health needs of active duty personnel, veterans, and family members.

Dr. Stebnicki is also certified by the Washington, D.C.-based crisis response team National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) and North Carolina’s American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health crisis team. Dr. Stebnicki is an active teacher, researcher, and practitioner with over 30 years’ experience working with the mental health and psychosocial rehabilitation needs of persons that have traumatic stress, chronic illnesses and disabilities.

Dr. Stebnicki has written seven books (4 edited books with Dr. Irmo Marini) most recently The Psychological and Social Impact of Illness and Disability (7th ed.) (2017, Springer Publishing) and The Professional Counselors’ Desk Reference (2016, Springer Publishing); and four single-author books, most recently Disaster Mental Health Counseling: Responding to Trauma in a Multicultural Context (2017, Springer Publishing); Empathy Fatigue: Healing the Mind, Body, and Spirit of Professional Counselors (2008, Springer Publishing). He has over 28 articles in peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at over 100 regional, state, and national conferences, seminars, and workshops, on topics ranging from youth violence, traumatic stress, empathy fatigue, and the psychosocial aspects of adults with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

Dr. Stebnicki has served on multiple professional counseling and accreditation boards. He served on the crisis response team for the Westside Middle School shootings in Jonesboro, AR (March 24, 1998) and has done many stress debriefings with private companies, schools, and government employees after incidents of workplace violence, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. His youth violence program, the Identification, Early Intervention, Prevention, and Preparation (IEPP) Program, was awarded national recognition by the American Counseling Association (ACA) Foundation for its vision and excellence in the area of youth violence prevention. Other accolades include consulting with former President Bill Clinton’s staff on addressing the students of Columbine High School after their critical incident (April 20, 1999).