In coordination with Chautauqua County Executive P.J. Wendel, in the aftermath of the Friday morning attack and subsequent evacuation of the Amphitheater and lockdown of the grounds, Chautauqua Institution opened the gates for a special team of crisis responders to help the community begin the long process of healing.
The Critical Incident Stress Management Team of Chautauqua County was called in at 12:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12 and spent several hours with community members and Institution staff in the Hultquist Center. Emergency workers with CISM typically work with first responders, but are called into communities when needed.
According to the Chautauqua County Fire Department website, a critical incident is “any event that has a stressful impact sufficient to overwhelm the usually effective coping skills of either an individual or a group. Critical incidents are typically sudden, powerful events outside the range of ordinary human experiences that affects emergency workers and the general public.”
The critical incident of the attack on Salman Rushdie was witnessed by hundreds in the Amphitheater. Of the 25 emergency workers at CISM, 20 were on hand Friday for Chautauquans.
“We stress — in the fire service, the family, the brotherhood — the encompassing of everyone, and that’s what we tried to tell the group that was in here, that you’re part of a family,” said Steve Rexford, Ellington Fire Department Chief, who has served for 47 years as an EMT. “Look out for each other, help each other, rely on each other, talk to each other, share your feelings. … Everybody’s going to be affected, and everybody’s affected differently.”
CISM Clinical Director Mary Rollinger said she deals exclusively with trauma four days a week, and has been on the CISM team for about 25 years. She was on-hand Friday with her colleagues, and she wanted Chautauquans to be aware, beyond the immediate shock, of the long-term effects the attack would have on the community.
“Today is maybe a day of shock, or ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ ” Rollinger said. “But then as time goes on, you want to be able to notice the people who witnessed it or who … were a part of this critical incident. You want to make sure that they get the help they need if they need it.”
Robert Benson, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Bemus Point and the chaplain for the county fire service, said in his experience, traumatic events can divide a community; he hopes the opposite is true, and that Chautauquans draw together — especially as the shock Rollinger discussed wears off.
“Shock can turn into anger, it can lead to disappointment,” Benson said. “There’s a whole bunch of emotions that can pour out when the shock finally wears off. And to keep an eye not only on yourself, but on other people that were involved, is really key.”
Friday’s incident was “a very abnormal situation,” Benson said, that may shatter people’s perception of what has always been “an inclusive, safe space.” In the aftermath, he said it was vital for community members to be in tune with their emotions. Acts of self-care can vary from person to person, and Rollinger encouraged people to count on their friends, faith, community or other resources.
“To not say anything and try to deal with this completely on your own just really doesn’t work for people,” Benson said. “It tends to come back. So dealing with your feelings and what you saw (and) how you felt about it, that’s really important — especially early on while you’re in that shock stage.”
As time progresses, the work toward healing must continue, Benson said, and stressed that word: work.
“It is work to heal,” he said. “Remember that it’s a process that takes time; that’s really important.”
If you are in need of mental health resources or emotional support, please call the Chautauqua County Crisis Helpline at 1-800-724-0461; Family Services of the Chautauqua Region at 716-488-1971; the WCA Outpatient Mental Health Program at 716-664-8641; or Chautauqua County Mental Health at 716-661-8330 or 716-363-3550.