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How a Trauma Counselor Does Her Job: 'Listening and Being There'

Trauma counselors from around the area have answered the call in Newtown in the past few days. We spoke with one to find out how she helps residents — and what others can do to help.

Katey Smith and her team have spent most of Thursday in Newtown. She and her trauma counseling team typically serve lower Fairfield County, but today is not a typical day.

"People are going to experience a lot of different things they're not used to," she says. "We're helping them to understand those feelings will decrease, will diminish over time. We're reassuring them many people experience trauma in their lives, and the majority recover. It's really a lot of listening and reassuring and being there for them."

Smith is a trauma response coordinator for Family Centers, a nonprofit based in Greenwich and Stamford, whose work includes everything from mental health counseling and bereavement to self-sufficiency programs. 

Earlier this week, the group led an open discussion in Greenwich and Darien for parents, educators and others who work with children, giving them a chance to share their feelings after the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook School. The staff is trained in crisis debriefing and psychological first aid.

"The interesting part is that everybody on team comes with a certain set of skills that makes the team as robust as it is," Smith says. "Grief counselors; family counselors; people who specialize in helping children; so we're able to dispatch this team wherever there's a trauma in the community."

They contacted Newtown Youth and Family Services, their sister organization, to offer their help. Smith says they've also worked with organizations like Kids in Crisis and Danbury's United Way.

"It's a really positive thing," she says. "We're working together ... to make sure all the needs are met."

While they can't talk much about the specifics of what they do — a trauma counselor's experiences are far too personal — she says there are some common elements in easing the pain that many community members may be feeling.

"Initially, it's really just listening and being there," she says. "Normalizing their feelings and the physiological responses. These can include not being able to sleep, eat, throwing up or headaches. It can include having emotional mood swings, guilt, it goes on and on."

Trauma counselors try to respond quickly, she says.

"The process is just beginning," she says. "I think the mental health community is working to find ways to support this community long term, over years and years. And this community will be supported. People aren't going to disappear, it's not just going to be for the next couple weeks. We're working to set up something permanent for this community."

In the meantime, what's the best thing those who aren't from Newtown can do to help? 

"Do something in your own community," she says — donate to the United Way, adopt a family for Christmas, volunteer at your local soup kitchen — "and do it for the families here in Newtown."

"These people need their privacy. They need be able to grieve with family members and community without having to look around and be suspicious. They're already hyper-vigilant, and with the recent tragedy they want their children to be safe. All these people converging on the town is re-traumatizing a lot of the parents and the children."

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