A Day in the Life of a Trauma Therapist

By: Michelle Pauley, Mental Health Therapist, Victim Support Services

When I tell people that I am a Trauma Therapist serving the students of a local high school that experienced a mass shooting, I usually hear something like “wow, that must be really hard”.  While I like to consider myself a hard worker, the truth is I consider my job to be an honor that leaves me feeling hopeful at the end of the day.

I start my day when the high school students begin class, at the early hour of 7:30 a.m.  I am in a private office in a building that is shared with school counselors and advocates providing support to students.

I begin the week in a meeting with the principals and school counselors, where I receive referrals for students needing extra support. Sometimes, the student requested support and sometimes a concerned adult is referring the student.  This meeting also allows me to learn about other things happening on campus. Perhaps testing is underway, or midterms are starting, or teachers will be holding conferences with parents. All of these things can impact the stress students are feeling and helps me anticipate my clients’ needs.

After the meeting with school staff, I begin to see students individually.  Students have typically scheduled with me in advance and know when to expect a pass in their classrooms, allowing them to come to my office for a therapy session.  I usually meet with students individually for one class period, approximately 50-60 minutes.  However, I am always willing to be flexible. If a student needs to take a test or turn in homework, I am willing to talk in whatever amount of time they have, even if it is just a few minutes. As long as they find it helpful, I am willing to work with them!

Sometimes a teacher, counselor or administrator will call me into meet a student unexpectedly. Whether they have learned that a student has just had a devastating loss, is feeling suicidal or is struggling with the trauma as a result of the shooting, I make myself available to be “on call” during the school day. I can help assess for safety, schedule a time to meet with the student on an ongoing basis, or refer the student to other appropriate services.

During lunch, I open my office doors to students.  The shooting happened during lunchtime in the cafeteria and that has left many on campus uncomfortable with the idea of eating in a large or crowded space.  Instead students sit in hallways, classrooms and on benches in the courtyard.  When I open my doors, students sit in my office, chatting, laughing and eating lunch. I am happy I can give them a safe place to take a break and have a bite to eat.  Around campus, much of the school staff has done the same, opening their offices and classrooms to students during lunch.

Finally, at least once a week, I run a support group focused on various needs of the students. Whether the students are connected by grief, trauma or personal experiences, support group offers students a unique way to heal together. Though the suggestion of support group usually prompts a skeptical look from most teens, the groups at this school have been so wildly successful that both staff and students are constantly requesting more groups! Kids will call down the hallway “Hey Michelle, put me in a group!”  It is hands down, one of the biggest compliments I receive. Support groups have become a popular choice!

Throughout my day I witness pain and struggle. But I also witness healing and resiliency. I have had the privilege of witnessing students and staff move through almost unimaginable trauma to a place where they are changed, but not broken. Yes, there are tears. But, there is also laughter.  Yes, there is gut wrenching loss.  But, there is also unbreakable connection.  When I go home at night I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to witness such beauty every day.