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Counselors In Las Vegas Lend An Ear To Those Who Want To Talk


We often think of first responders mainly as police, fire and emergency-medical professionals. In Las Vegas on Monday, NPR's Eric Westervelt found a small volunteer army of mental-health professionals, trauma counselors, psychiatrists and social workers who quickly fanned out to help some of the thousands who had witnessed the massacre up close.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Counselor Alicia Tucker spent a long Monday at the Mandalay Bay Casino listening to any survivors that wanted to talk, and lots of people needed to talk. There was the phone call to a Mandalay hotel guest stricken with panic attacks, too scared to leave his room or let anyone enter. And there were the two men in their early 20s who were having cocktails at a sky bar and witnessed the whole shooting. They told Tucker they watched bodies fall and people run in chaos. One told her, I never talk about anything, but I need to get this out.

ALICIA TUCKER: And he kept, you know, saying the - the vision, 'cause he said it was so well lit-up, they could see just bodies dropping and blood going and just the horror of everybody. And, you know, he's like, it was just like a video game, but these were real people. He's like, I can't even imagine what I just saw. So he's still trying to process that.

WESTERVELT: Tucker's advice to him included don't jump on the next plane out of town. Stay and talk with your friend and try writing it all out. And there was the combat veteran who was enjoying a night of gambling when security quickly hustled him and scores of other guests and casino employees into a safe room. The gunfire and the whole scene, Tucker says, seemed to trigger some kind of PTSD.

TUCKER: And they - he even said that. He's like, I've been through so much. And his hands were shaking and he was crying. He goes, but I can't shake this. He said, I feel like someone's following me. And, you know, he was - he was very upset.

WESTERVELT: Counselors here say one positive thing to come out of this really horrible event - the mental-health community responded within hours and in droves when the call went out early Monday for volunteer crisis professionals. Psychologist Dr. Michelle Paul was another of the volunteers. She's a professor at UNLV and directs the school's community mental-health clinic. She got only a few hours of sleep in between on-the-go counseling sessions at a staging area for survivors. There were lots of stories of running and jumping fences, she says, of hiding anywhere from bullets that seemed to come from everywhere.

MICHELLE PAUL: They were scraped and bruised and had, you know, fallen in order to get somewhere safe, just scrambling to get anywhere where they could feel like they were out of harm's way.

WESTERVELT: Reactions ran the gamut. Some wanted to talk in depth. Others, Dr. Paul says, just wanted a little comfort.

PAUL: You know, I sat with some women last night who really just needed to get blankets and water and know that their friends were OK. And they had seen a lot, but they weren't ready to talk about that yet.

WESTERVELT: Counselors Alicia Tucker and her colleague, Michelle Huerta, say what's been particularly hard, this is their hometown and everyone knows someone directly affected. An off-duty police officer is among the dead. He coached Huerta's son in football. Tucker says she almost went to the country music concert with her husband but decided against it last minute. I asked her how she's doing.

TUCKER: I'm OK. I've just - it sucks. I'm going to cry again. It's just sad. You know? I've got friends that are unaccounted for. But we're good. It's just hard, you know, hearing it and seeing so many people so upset.

WESTERVELT: Who counsels the counselors?

MICHELLE HUERTA: We counsel each other. And that's what's good about our office, is, we have a good group of people that we all support each other.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.