They come on the heels of tragedy
Trauma counselors devote careers to crises
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- You hear about them after the first wave of police, paramedics and reporters have descended on the scene, after the first breathless reports of mayhem have been broadcast and printed.
Amid the uproar, they go to work, generally invisible, always invaluable: trauma counselors.
When a crisis strikes, as it did last week when two students were shot to death at Santana High School in suburban San Diego, California, counselors make their low-profile way into the lives of those affected by disaster.
They are people like Carol Hacker, who was among the counselors' ranks two years ago when shots rang out at Columbine High School in Colorado, leaving 15 people dead. Shortly after the slayings, Hacker was on hand help the survivors.
"It's not treatment, it's education -- helping them understand the world's been turned upside-down, they'll never be the same, and therefore won't act and think as they have in the past because their world has changed," she said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver.
Suicides, drive-by shootings
Rosemary Rubin is a school counselor consultant for Los Angeles, California, public schools. Although she hasn't been called into action for anything on the scale of Columbine or Santana high schools, she has dealt with suicides and drive-by shootings.
Recently she was called in to help at a private school where a youth accidentally shot his friend while playing with a gun. He was so distraught he killed himself, even though the friend survived, Rubin recalled in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
Rubin met with the principal, then talked with students who came forward and asked for assistance. The debriefing, she said, is crucial in helping reduce the incidence of post-traumatic stress.
"What you want to do always is to help them start processing and dealing with the emotions of what has happened," she said.
Back to Columbine
Hacker became interested in counseling decades ago, when her husband returned from the Vietnam War and struggled with the trauma he'd experienced in the conflict. But it wasn't until several years after his return that Hacker immersed herself in trauma-related work.
She first worked as a teacher, then earned a master's degree in counseling and switched to school counseling. Her resume includes eight years at Columbine.
She got more involved in crisis and trauma work as part of the Jefferson County (Colorado) School District's employee assistance program, and began coordinating all crisis responses and training for crisis teams in the school district.
Since retiring from the district in 1996, she has helped schools and school districts in several states set up crisis plans. Hacker also works with faith-based groups and social-service agencies, has led several workshops and sits on the board of directors of South Carolina-based Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists.
"It appealed to me partly on a personal level, but more than that, it's where my skills and interests lie," she says. "This up-front trauma work fits right in with what I like to do."
She was drafted back into action at Columbine after the shootings, and helped organize crisis response plans at other schools in the district that includes Columbine. She also worked with local clergy during the aftermath.
Like Hacker, Rubin also started out as a teacher, then worked her way into counseling. That eventually led to her current duties, which involve responding to crises and training crisis team members in how to work with suicidal young people and others.
She was in the right place at the right time, Rubin said.
"I went into the profession to help others, and this is just another piece of being able to help people deal with what's happened to them," she said.
When Hacker was training for trauma work, she and her colleagues had preconceived notions about what their duties would entail.
"I said, 'The worst thing that'll happen is a suicide or maybe a very terrible accident where more than one child is killed.' That's what we thought was the worst thing the school would have to deal with," she said. "We never thought about a student coming into a school and shooting kids, and certainly not a mass tragedy."
The nature of training has changed considerably since Columbine and other school shootings.
"When we do training, we still train around what you do in suicide. We still talk about kids with individual trauma like parents divorcing, but now we also spend a lot of time talking about the high-profile mass-death tragedy like school shootings," she said. "It's much more complicated."
Rubin, who trained with the National Organization for Victim Assistance, agreed.
"It's no longer a matter of if something's going to happen. It's a matter of when it's going to happen," Rubin said.
Not for everyone
As Hacker's own career suggests, there's no direct route into the field. Counseling, of course, provides a foundation for the work, and some schools offer certificates in trauma work. A significant amount of the training comes from workshops, she said.
Rubin finds her job rewarding, but said it can be be physically and emotionally draining.
"We tend to put our emotions on hold because we're so intent on working with students and teachers," she said.
And, as Hacker noted, the job is not for everyone.
"People who like trauma work really like trauma work. People who don't really don't," she said. "It's a seductive field because it's very exciting, the adrenaline pumps all over, but sometimes people who start in it say, 'This is not for me, (I) don't like all the pressure, the life-and-death stuff'"
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