No police officers or other first responders suffered physical injuries responding to the horrific tragedy Monday at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park.
But some likely suffered psychological trauma that, if not addressed, can hurt them in the long run, according to a suburban psychologist who specializes in helping first responders.
Carrie Steiner, of First Responders Wellness Center, has been working this week with first responders from Vernon Hills and Deerfield who worked the mass shooting. The tragedy may be especially disturbing to police from the Highland Park area, because it is a relatively peaceful community, she said.
"It (the shooting) really shakes your view of the world," said Steiner, who worked 13 years as a Chicago police officer before shifting careers.
Police officers typically enter the field with a desire to help people, but "Nobody signed up for a mass shooting." In the wake of a traumatic event, first responders have some common reactions -- irritability, trouble sleeping, a lack of appetite among them. That's because the limbic system in their brains automatically activated their bodies' "fight-flight-freeze" response. That puts what's important for immediate survival first -- increasing blood flow to major muscles, sharpening hearing, increasing peripheral vision, decreasing pain perception. It can take three days to a week to go away, according to Steiner.
If the symptoms last beyond a week, that's when Steiner recommends treatment. The earlier, the better, to decrease the chance of developing a long-term issue, she said.
The effect of repeated trauma is cumulative, which is worrisome for first responders because they experience much more of it than the general public, Steiner said. The average person may experience five traumatic events in a lifetime; an officer in a small- to medium-size department averages 188.5 traumatic incidents in a 20-year career, she said.
This week Steiner has done group debriefings every day this week for first responders to Highland Park. A group debriefing shows people they aren't the only ones affected. First responders often tell her the other people are OK, but "I'm not."
"I fear for the officers involved in this, because of that," Steiner said.
She starts by telling the group her own experience, including that she shot someone when she was on the force in Chicago. She shares statistics about job-related trauma,and gives them the common signs of trauma. She explains how their brain works in traumatic situations -- and why that means they might have trouble making decisions or accurately recalling details. Sometimes they may even misremember things -- she's treated officers who thought they fired their guns but didn't, or who thought they were alone when a co-worker was right behind them. She asks everybody in the room to say what they did, so a true picture emerges.
She tells them feeling guilty, angry or anxious is normal, but that they may also have positive feelings about how they used good tactics, stood their ground or made wise decisions. They should not feel bad for feeling positive, for example, about doing a good job guiding uninjured paradegoers to safety. It doesn't mean the officers are not respecting the fact that people died.
First Responder Wellness Center operates in Northfield and Lombard. Besides offering trauma services, it does a variety of other work, including preemployment psychological evaluations.
"I left the CPD because I knew too many officers who had killed themselves, were on their third marriages or were alcoholics," Steiner said. She became a psychologist in 2009.