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Therapists of Parkland Survivors Struggle Handling Sessions

The Palm Beach Post, Fla.

The students and teachers who survived the Parkland school shooting nearly a year ago experienced overwhelming trauma and turned to a network of local therapists who offered them free counseling.

The clinicians absorbed horror story after horror story, guiding survivors through unimaginable pain. Through it all, they didn't break down. They couldn't.

"We are channels," said Deb Del Vecchio-Scully, a trauma therapist who also counseled families after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Parkland shooting. "This energy moves through us, but it doesn't stick to us."

Much like paramedics and police who witness tragedies, mental health specialists are affected by the stories of trauma.

"I will tell you repeatedly today, everyone in this room should get consultations," Del Vecchio-Scully told the group of therapists. "I don't care if you've been doing this for 50 years. Everyone could use that kind of support."

Del Vecchio-Scully shook her hands and paced in a small circle, showing the crowd how to "literally shake off" stress after a tough session.

"I know. It looks funny," she said. "You're laughing at me, I don't care. You have to discharge that energy."

The training was put on by Professionals United for Parkland, a network of mental health professionals who created a database for free one-on-one or group therapy sessions for Parkland survivors.

Ilene Glance -- a trauma therapist whose Coral Springs practice is a mile from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the shooting -- offered free counseling to students, teachers and families that experienced the massacre. At one point, she had 53 counseling sessions a week.

"I was very overwhelmed," Glance said. "I had to take a step back and take personal time."
Glance is also part of a peer group of therapists who meet twice a month to offer advice and comfort one another.

Jill Bershad, a trauma therapist from Boca Raton who also works with Parkland families, is in the group too.

"It's nice to have people to talk to because we're all experiencing the same things," she said.
Bershad, a mother of three, separates her work life and home life to avoid overwhelming emotion.

"For me, I just come home and hug my kids after work," she said. "Practicing gratitude is everything in this job."

On the cusp of the one-year anniversary of the Valentine's Day shooting, therapists who treat Stoneman Douglas students and family are braced for a wave of stress and disillusionment that typically follows months of progress, Del Vecchio-Scully said.

"The anniversaries always stir up emotions," Del Vecchio-Scully said. "They're sitting in algebra class and you know what they're thinking about? They're replaying that day."
While some therapists, like Del Vecchio-Scully, try to avoid becoming emotional during sessions with patients, others can't help it.

"You're a human being, it's impossible not to have human reactions," Glance said. "Sometimes it's good for clients to see that. It's comforting."

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