Helplines and comfort dogs: Here's how some area mental health experts are assisting Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy victims

·5 min read
Sasha Catalan, left, and Rocio Castillo, right, place items at Veterans Memorial Park on Wednesday to remember those killed in the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy on Nov. 21.
Sasha Catalan, left, and Rocio Castillo, right, place items at Veterans Memorial Park on Wednesday to remember those killed in the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy on Nov. 21.

The extent of the physical injuries from those who were taken to area hospitals following the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy are still coming to light.

Some still remain in the hospital more than a week after the incident.

But the emotional and mental toll the tragedy has had on the many people who witnessed the event also remains untold.

Hours after the incident, a mental and behavioral health helpline at Children's Wisconsin in Wauwatosa was set up.

Several victims of the tragedy were transported to Children's Wisconsin. Experts there knew that in addition to the physical injuries, the tragedy would take quite an emotional toll as well.

Haley Miller, a licensed clinical social worker and a behavioral health consultant at Children's Wisconsin, helped staff the helpline herself, talking to individuals who were directly affected by the tragedy.

"I've heard a lot from parents that were at the parade, wondering how they can talk to their child about what happened, regardless of age," Miller said.

That could be a 3-year-old or a 15-year-old.

There's no 'normal' response to tragedy or trauma, experts say

It's normal for individuals to feel angry, sad, anxious or confused, Miller said. It's also OK to feel nothing.

Miller said many families are calling in to express a wide array of feelings people were, and are, feeling following the tragedy.

"And I help to explain and give some education about any reaction right now that they're having is normal because there's no normal way to experience a trauma like that," Miller added.

Tammy Makhlouf, a licensed professional counselor and mental and behavioral health clinical manager, echoed that point.

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"There is no normal way ... this is something that is going to impact everybody, and they're going to go about processing it in a very different way," Makhlouf said.

Makhlouf is also helping staff the helpline, which remains open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at (414) 266-6500.

Makhlouf knows that as time goes on, "There's going to be a continued need for mental health resources and support for families."

Jodi, who didn't want to give her last name, takes a photo of a memorial at Veterans Park in Waukesha on Nov. 23 near where a person plowed his SUV through the Waukesha Christmas Parade on Nov. 21, leaving six dead and more than 60 injured.
Jodi, who didn't want to give her last name, takes a photo of a memorial at Veterans Park in Waukesha on Nov. 23 near where a person plowed his SUV through the Waukesha Christmas Parade on Nov. 21, leaving six dead and more than 60 injured.

Research from the National Institute of Mental Health has found that responses to trauma can be "immediate or delayed, brief or prolonged."

"Most people have intense responses immediately following, and often for several weeks or months after a traumatic event," according to the institute.

Trouble concentrating or continually thinking about what happened are other byproducts of witnessing a traumatic event, according to the NIMH.

Some people call the helpline to vent about the incident and express anger about the suspect.

"We had people just trying to make sense of what happened, too, of, 'where does this come from, what did this person experience that led them to complete this act?'" Miller said.

Makhlouf said she's heard from parents asking advice on whether they should go to upcoming Christmas or holiday parades in the area.

"So that's also been something that families are trying to navigate, on how to minimize the traumatic event or the trauma that is happening with the child and how to minimize the symptoms," Makhlouf said.

Makhlouf encouraged others to call the helpline if they do feel the need to talk to someone.

"And that's why if we can address some of these traumatic symptoms early on, hopefully, we can alleviate them being stronger and more difficult to manage when they do come up," Makhlouf said.

Comfort dogs are providing support as well

Charity is a comfort dog with Lutheran Church Charities. She lives with her caregiver in Brookfield.
Charity is a comfort dog with Lutheran Church Charities. She lives with her caregiver in Brookfield.

As support continues to roll in from the community, trained comfort dogs with the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog ministry have been a welcome sight for many in Waukesha.

Becky Kilvinger is the team lead with the Comfort Dog Charity. She's placed at Brookfield Lutheran Church in Brookfield.

She and others with the ministry attended the first vigil in Waukesha, the night following the tragedy.

"Just to be with people, to allow them a moment in that space to process and the dogs always assist in that," Kilvinger said.

They also were present at the Waukesha County Family and Friends Resource Center, hosted by Carroll University, where an assortment of mental health resources and professionals were present.

"Allowing victims and witnesses to process the tragedy that had occurred, and maybe that's not fully processed, but it's the beginning and the starting point, and to give them that resource, whether it's a book, a pamphlet, a mental health professional or the dogs to bury their tears in," Kilvinger said.

"Many people talk to the dog first and open up," she continued, "before they look someone in the eye and share their feelings."

Other resources available

Evan Casey can be reached at 414-403-4391 or evan.casey@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter @ecaseymedia.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy: Mental health resources available

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