March 27, 2008

Faculty members assist NIU counselors

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — In the hours, days and weeks after last month's shootings at Northern Illinois University, the school's counseling staff and graduate students listened again and again to the stories of people who were there.

Some had cowered in the room while the gunman did his deadly work. Some had waited outside Cole Hall with drawn guns and pounding hearts. Some had arrived only afterward to deal with the carnage and chaos Steven Kazmierczak left behind.

The telling of these stories — "debriefing," in counselorspeak — can help the healing process on its way. People learn that crisis brings out crazy-making feelings — numbness, apathy, flashbacks — and that while that's uncomfortable, it's all perfectly normal. But who listens to the listeners?

"If they don't do anything for themselves, it's like driving a car and never changing the oil," said Kimberly K. Asner-Self, counseling programs coordinator for Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education and herself a volunteer "debriefer" for the Red Cross.

"Those of us who work in trauma recognize the need for debriefing of our own. If you don't get it, you can start having symptoms similar to those of your clients, and it has a ripple effect. It can skew the way you see the world."

One of Northern's debriefers, Debra A. Pender, had earned her doctorate at SIUC. When the time came for the mental-health equivalent of a tune-up for herself and four doctoral students who had shared much of the debriefing load, Pender naturally turned to her old mentors. Asner-Self and colleague Brett E. Zyromski visited DeKalb shortly before spring break to lend some helping ears.

"While the rest of the world has moved on to the next news events, they're still in crisis mode there," Asner-Self said.

"Deb is continuing to debrief pretty much constantly. In fact, when we were there, she was in the process of debriefing the campus police force. She took one call while we were in the process with her — it must have been 10:30 that night."

Some "debriefees" may not have realized their need for Pender's services in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.

"People can seem fine 24 to 48 hours after an event but experience 'echoing' a month later, three months later or around the anniversary date,"Asner-Self said.

Debriefing doesn't have to take a long time; it's not counseling, Asner-Self stressed. At NIU, she and Zyromski met in a classroom with Pender and her students, had some pizza and diet Cokes and hashed out how the students were dealing with the stresses of listening to difficult stories.

"You have these people who have all experienced the same thing, and you get them talking," Asner-Self said.

"That normalizes things, and it creates a bond because they've all experienced something together that they haven't experienced even with their closest friends. It gives them a support system."

Will Pender and her students need debriefing again? To answer that, Asner-Self returned to her oil-change analogy.

"You and I have to change our oil every 3,000 miles or every three months," she said with a smile.

"But what about Dale Earnhardt Jr.? How often should he be changing his oil? The requirements for oil changes are very different for you and me and Dale, but the consequences to the car of not changing the oil are similar. And while failure to change your oil might teach you an expensive lesson, Dale's failure could cost him his life."