Disaster Survivors Talk Why Self-Care Is Vital to Trauma Recovery

The timeless flight attendant’s advice, “Secure your oxygen mask before helping others,” applies to leaders helping their communities after a traumatic event.

Disaster Survivors Talk Why Self-Care Is Vital to Trauma Recovery

School leaders who have survived disasters, including school shootings and severe weather incidents, speak to both their struggles and successes surrounding self-care.

You’re sitting on a plane, waiting for take-off, when the pilot asks for your undivided attention as a flight attendant goes through the required safety demonstration. Half the passengers already have their headphones in and don’t catch a word. Others are tending to their children or finishing getting settled, firing off that final text or email that just cannot wait until landing.

For the very few who are listening, they will hear something along the lines of, “In the event of decompression, an oxygen mask will drop down in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you, place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head and breathe normally. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask before assisting anyone else.”

The last line is much easier said than done. It is easy to say you will help yourself before helping others, but in the event of an emergency, many of us will focus our time and energy on the ones we love while neglecting our own needs. And while the sentiment is sincere, it is unsustainable.

Little do we realize as we sit through these demonstrations over and over, we aren’t only getting a safety lesson on what to do during an in-air emergency — we are getting a life lesson on handling any traumatic incident we may face, including a school safety incident.

Now I can’t take credit for the correlation between oxygen masks and school safety. The analogy was made at last month’s National Summit on School Safety (NSSS) during a panel discussion consisting of individuals affected by school tragedies, including survivors, relatives of victims and school safety advocates.

While so much focus pertaining to school safety has been put on active shooter incidents, self-care is important in any traumatic incident, such as a natural disaster or unexpected student or staff death.

“The first thing they tell you is to put the oxygen mask on yourself first,” said panelist Dr. CJ Huff. “It seems very selfish to do that and I, for one, was one of those people who would always say you have to take care of yourself before you take care of others. I told everybody that. But we pay lip service to it.”

Huff was the superintendent of Joplin (Missouri) Schools in 2011 when an EF-5 tornado with winds exceeded 100 mph ripped through the town. Six schools were destroyed, four were damaged, and 161 community members died, including seven students and a staff member.

Huff recalled the months and years following the devastating tornado, where he worked himself into the ground, never took a day off and gained 70 pounds. He poured so much time and effort into helping others in his community that he forgot about himself.

“As a direct result of the failure on my part, I wore myself out, I wore my people out. I never gave myself permission to take a day off or spend time with my family or get back into my routines,” he continued. “From a leadership standpoint, I think it’s important to recognize that you have to demonstrate to others and be a good role model for self-care, because if you’re giving yourself permission to do that, it gives other people around you permission to as well.”

In the short clip below, psychologist Viviana Triana discusses how school staff often experience secondary trauma and develop post-traumatic stress disorder following a disaster. You can also watch the full video about the effects of trauma on campus first responders and staff.

Columbine Principal Spearheads Trauma Recovery Group for School Leaders

Frank DeAngelis, former Columbine High School principal, reiterated Dr. Huff’s advice in the event’s closing keynote. He recalled someone telling him that counseling was a sign of weakness and that if he were to seek help, he would be deemed unfit for duty.

“That’s ludicrous,” he exclaimed. “The person I did listen to was a chiropractor my mom worked for. He called me up 24 hours after the shooting and he said, ‘Frank, you’re going to find every reason to help others.’ As CJ pointed out this morning on the panel, you’re being pulled by the parents, by the kids, by everyone, and the last person you take care of is yourself. But [the chiropractor] said, ‘If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to help anyone else.’ And that was the best piece of advice I received.”

DeAngelis carried that advice into helping create a support group for school leaders. This month, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) announced the launch of its Principals Recovery Network (PRN) – a national network of current and former school leaders who have experienced gun violence tragedies in their schools. The support group seeks to assist principals in the immediate aftermath of a crisis and beyond.

In the aftermath of the March 2018 shooting at Great Mills High School in which 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey was shot and killed by a student gunman, parents, students and staff looked to Principal Jake Heibel for guidance and strength, but “myself, I was struggling. I was traumatized just like everybody else,” he told The 74 Million.

Following the incident, several educators who also experienced similar tragedies reached out to him, offering advice and support. One of those people was Frank DeAngelis.

“He reached out and said ‘You’ve got to take care of yourself because you’re going to be taking care of everyone else, and it’s important that you do have your support network,’” Heibel recalled of the conversation.

At the group’s inaugural meeting earlier this month, the 17 members discussed their experiences, including the need to restore a learning focus after a traumatic event. The group also discussed the need for increased mental health awareness, both to prevent violent incidents and to help schools recover once they occur. The latter must also be applied to teachers and administrators.

“Effective leadership is absolutely essential to help a school recover from a shooting, and so the principal often feels the need to take care of everyone else,” said NASSP Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti. “As NASSP’s new Building Ranks framework for school leadership indicates, personal wellness is a crucial factor in the schoolwide success. That wellness applies of course to students, but also to all the adults who contribute to student learning. Especially after a traumatic event, principals must see to their own well-being both for their own sake and for the sake of the school.”

PRN member Michael Bennett was the principal at Columbia High School in 2004 when he was shot in the leg by a 16-year-old student with a shotgun. He recalls returning to work just a week later, thinking things would simply go back to “normal.” He ended up suffering from a severe panic attack and was unable to finish the school year.

“I think I lend a little bit [of a] different view, being someone who is actually the victim of the school shooting,” he said. “Having someone who has some shared experience to be in your corner to check in on you would have been very helpful for me, I think, and I hope that lends a service to other folks moving forward.”

Looping back to the NSSS panel, when Dr. Huff was asked by the moderator what helped him pick himself up and move forward, he said peer support.

“Greensburg, Kansas, had a tornado a number of years prior [to Joplin’s] and the superintendent of schools sat down with me and talked to my school board about what to expect,” he said. “This was all new to me. You learn this whole new world… So that peer support was really important to me.”

Support groups of all kinds have proven to work for so many. Having the support of people who have gone through the same thing as you and knowing you aren’t alone in your recovery is a powerful thing.

Whether you are a superintendent, principal, school safety officer, teacher or student, it is okay to take care of yourself in the aftermath of a traumatic event. In fact, it is vital.

Additional Resources for Disaster Survivors

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has these recommendations for disaster survivors coping with grief and/or trauma:

  • Talk to others who understand what you are going through
  • Take care of yourself by exercising regularly, eating healthy and getting enough sleep
  • Regularly participate in activities you find relaxing
  • Allow yourself to feel both joy and sadness and to cry when you need to
  • Do not underestimate what you have been through but also recognize that you are strong and able to recover
  • Seek care from a trained, trauma-informed provider

Here are some more resources for disaster survivors:

Disaster Distress Helpline

American Red Cross Recovery Guides

Ready.gov: Coping with Disaster

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About the Author


Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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