Similar to the work being done by schools and safety forces, the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Portage County and its agencies are preparing how to meet community mental health needs after a crisis incident.
Organized through the board, the Portage County Incident Response Team is a group of counselors, psychologists and other mental health professionals who work with victims and those affected by crises incidents that occur in the community. Team members can be on site to provide mental health assistance at schools for crises including student deaths; for accidents or deaths at businesses; or for large scale crises with mass casualties and fatalities.
"The team has been serving Portage County for the past 30 years. But when a mass incident occurs nearby like the shootings in Chardon, you see first-hand how the mental health system can make a difference helping the community cope and heal," said Dr. Joel Mowrey, executive director of the Portage board, member and trainer for the IRT.
Mowrey stressed that the team is not part of the first response with law enforcement or fire but will come on scene to assist with victims and by standers who need support, especially in crisis incidents where there are injured and dead. MHRB staff has met with Ravenna and Kent city officials to talk about the service. A meeting is scheduled with Aurora officials followed by plans to talk with Portage County Sheriff Dave Doak, the county Emergency Management Office and leaders in Streetsboro, the villages and townships in Portage County.
Team members are on staff at Children's Advantage, Townhall II, Coleman Professional Services, Family and Community Services and the Mental Health & Recovery Board.
The Portage County team will work in a similar manner, Mowrey said. The team is contacted through the Townhall II Helpline which operates 24 hours
More than 40 members of the IRT attended training in February where Jim Adams, executive director of the Geauga County Mental Health & Recovery Services Board, outlined his agency's response to the Chardon school shooting.
"How long does the grief process last after an incident like this? The grief and the trauma response just continue and we're a year out. The CDC reported that the last identifiable client from the Columbine High School started counseling almost five years after the actual event," Adams said.
Since the Chardon shooting one year ago, the Geauga County area has experienced several suicides and at least eight suicide attempts. Adams said 30 families are involved with counseling services due to the event.
He estimated the number of persons seeking services has increased 20 percent while calls to the 24-hour crisis phone line have increased 30 percent.
The day of the event, the Chardon MHRB and its team set up a site at the middle school where victims and others affected by the shootings could go for support and referrals. The team screened counselors who volunteered and provided scheduling with the help of the Geauga County United Way.
The team was available for emergencies when teachers re-entered the building for the first time and then again when they were reunited with students.
Its other major responsibility was to dispel rumors and provide information to reduce anxiety and help community members be more aware when they or their family members started to show signs of trauma, depression and increased substance abuse.
"Some of our counselors are certified trauma specialists. There is an overall commitment among team members for being prepared to help the community when the need arises. Many of us have worked in Portage County for a long time and know the communities and residents. We'll be there to assist," Mowrey added.