After Sandy Hook, Metro police put mental health into response plans

Friday, July 19, 2013 at 12:02am

Directors of the Metro Nashville Police Department’s counseling services are joining a regional mental health committee to provide services and prepare officers for the trauma that follows a disastrous event.

The Middle Tennessee Mental Health Disaster Response Committee began as a response to the Nashville flood in 2010, said Kandy Templeton, chair of the committee and senior vice president of the crisis and health integration program at Volunteer Behavioral Health Care System.

As the flood demonstrated successes and failures across the spectrum of regional emergency management, it brought attention to the lack of a comprehensive response plan for treating the emotional trauma experienced by victims.

“We realized there really was not a plan that covered the mental health part of a disaster,” Templeton said.

Templeton and other mental health representatives put together a response plan after the flood, and a comprehensive plan was adopted by the state departments of health and mental health in 2012 with input from the American Red Cross and emergency management agencies.

“It was nuts prior to that plan being in place,” said Becky Stoll, co-chair of the committee and a representative from Centerstone of Tennessee, a mental health provider. “Normally we navigated it fine; it was good enough. But when the flood happened, it was so disjointed.”

The state plan divides Tennessee into six regions. Davidson County is its own district but was joined with the rest of Middle Tennessee under the regional response committee.

The plan seeks to administer psychological first aid to victims of mass casualty events — natural disasters, accidental man-made disasters such as plane crashes or criminal man-made disasters, such as shootings or bombings.

It was the Sandy Hook tragedy that spurred Metro police to get involved, said Dr. Carol Harp, director of the department’s Behavioral Health Services Division.

After the elementary school shooting, a disaster plan was employed in Connecticut that assigned counselors to affected families, and it prompted Nashville’s police to question their own strategy in the event of such a traumatic incident.

“If there were a major disaster in Nashville that required a lot of mental health support, particularly people who are trained in trauma work, the city would pull from all the different agencies across town,” Harp said. “We are one who can offer about 15 crisis counselors that are trained.”

For the response committee, the engagement of the police is another opportunity to coordinate all agencies that would serve in a disaster situation.

“I think the more entities that are going to play a role, the better,” Stoll said.

Crisis care differs from standard mental health treatment because many people in need do not necessarily have traditional depression or anxiety disorders.

“Something external has happened to them,” Stoll said. “That element of spontaneity has come on them and disrupted their equilibrium.”

Crisis intervention involves calming disoriented or hysterical victims, teaching coping methods, “tapping into people’s natural resiliency,” and giving recommendations to people who need additional help for longer-term services.

“A lot of people don’t recognize the stress and the trauma — they can’t sleep, they can’t eat, maybe substance abuse could occur,” Templeton said.

But for the police department, psychological first aid is also an important tool to use internally — as first responders, officers can be traumatized by disasters.

“Like with Sandy Hook,” Harp said. “If they have to deal with seeing that, they need someone to talk to themselves.”

The MNPD’s Behavioral Health Services Division will start attending the committee’s quarterly meetings July 29 to coordinate police counseling efforts with the regional plan.

In the event of a disaster, several local emergency management services are employed as first responders. Those agencies notify the Red Cross, which activates the regional mental health committees. If the event is declared a national disaster, the plan then goes through the federal government.

Most recently, the Middle Tennessee committee responded to the meningitis outbreak that affected Nashville and several regions throughout the nation.

“That’s not something people really think about [as a disaster], but we tried to do some interventions and work with the Health Department on the emotional, anxiety side of that,” Templeton said. “This is helping people move through those traumatic events and recover from them, and move forward with their lives.”