Reflections as a Director

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Reflections as a Director

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Reflections as a Director of a Psychology Training Clinic on the
shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech
(Written for the Association of Directors of Psychology Training Clinics)

On the morning of April 16, 2007, a male student shot to death 32 students and faculty, wounded 17 more, and then killed himself on the campus of Virginia Tech. In the midst of unspeakable grief, the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg community, with tremendous support from many people, did an incredible job of responding as best as it could to meet the needs of those most deeply affected. My purpose of this article is to briefly describe my experiences and reflections on the role of the psychology training clinic and my role as the Director in the days following this particularly tragic event.

To better understand our response, a brief description of the type and structure of clinical services at Virginia Tech. Like any major higher-learning institution, Virginia Tech has an on-campus, university-based counseling center, the Cook Counseling Center, which has a staff of 10-12 full-time counselors, 3-5 interns, 3-5 externship students, and 1-2 psychiatrists. The Psychological Services Center of Virginia, of which I am the Director, is an off-campus, community-based training facility for the Ph.D. Clinical Psychology program in the Department of Psychology. At any one time, we typically have 20-25 graduate students in various stages of their training enrolled in clinical practicum and seeing clients. Additionally, the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program also has an off-campus training center for their graduate students. The Cook Counseling Center and the Psychological Services Center (and the MFT clinic) are separate facilities and organizations. Over the years, our relationship with the counseling center has been good especially in terms of reciprocal referral and training opportunities.

In response to the shootings, the primary "clinical" responder to the university community was the Cook Counseling Center and the primary care service for the local community was the state operated Community Services Board, whereas the Psychological Services Center was viewed as one of a multitude of secondary "overflow" support systems. The Director of the Cook Counseling Center, who fortunately for Virginia Tech had prior direct disaster response experience, quickly and efficiently took the role as a leader of the psychological first aid response effort for the university. I was part of multiple meetings focused on the university's response to the shootings and my consistent observation was that everything seemed to be well covered by the staff of the Cook Counseling Center and related university systems (e.g., Student Affairs). Similarly, the number of professional therapists, counselors, disaster workers, Red Cross workers, state-mandated mental health crisis team members, state health insurance disaster workers, etc. that came to our town to help was immense. In sum, there was way more supportive/therapeutic help available than was needed, which was a good thing to see and feel as a community.

In the meantime, many of our clinical psychology graduate students came to me with questions of what they could do and suggestions for what we could do. As it turned out, a significant subset of students helped out with the Red Cross. Similar to my perceptions about the abundance of "therapists", they noted many more disaster relief workers were available than needed. Another subset of students took to searching for information and developing an information-based manual for crisis response and management. This was a very gracious effort, and probably helped us more in terms of alleviating our own anxiety that we could be helpful than actually imparting previously unknown information. That is, being trained to be a "caring listener" was the most helpful clinical skill during these times. And yet another subset of students found their way into very helpful roles in the aftermath; being a "right hand person" for a disaster relief director; helping to orient visiting families, getting water and food for relief workers, etc.

Honestly, our help as a training clinic was not needed or necessary. Being good people, being so close to a tragic event, and the fact that we are trained (or in training) psychologists, we felt driven to help and everyone did their best. I was, and continue to be, extremely proud of how our students reacted by giving of themselves to help others. But between all the service organizations and trained personnel provided by the state, city, and university, all was more than adequately covered. We had a few current and new clients come in for emergency-type sessions, but no onslaught of folks needing therapy. My take on it all now is that our role in helping was not as psychologists or therapists, but as fellow members of a shocked and grieving community.

I did two related things that week that, at least I believe, reveal the essence of what was truly important in a time of crisis. One was listening to my wife when she announced two days after the shootings that she was tired of us watching the news and becoming numb, and then preceded to call our good friends and invite them to a casual dinner party that evening. In her own special way, she was saying what we needed to do was be with each other. The second thing, following this same theme, was that I held a meeting of all clinical psychology graduate students and faculty. In that meeting, I expressed my thoughts about the tremendous amount and level of care available to everyone in the community, that I truly appreciated the students' help and many offers of help, and that I was very proud of them. But, at that time, I felt that our path to recovery was to acknowledge that we were also affected by this tragedy, to let others do their job, support each other, and to grieve with each other. In short, be with each other. Moreover, our services will be needed in six months or so, and for many years beyond, and as such, we should focus on our own health and be ready when needed. Many have commented since then that this is what they needed to hear and helped them to move on with their own recovery. Upon reflection, my most effective act as a Director was to let the students know that being a psychologist for the community was not their job, rather, to be a loving partner, friend, student, mentor, colleague, and parent was their duty in such tragedy and sadness, as it was mine.

Lee Cooper
Director, Psychological Services Center
Department of Psychology
Virginia Tech

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Lee Cooper

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2008-04-07

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Lee Cooper

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eng

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Lee Cooper, "Reflections as a Director," in The April 16 Archive, Item #2042, http://www.april16archive.org/items/show/2042 (accessed April 23, 2014).