4 Years After Aurora Theater Shooting, How First Responders Cope Is Changing

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Photo: Helping Colorado's First Responders Cope with Mental Trauma
John Nicoletti worked with first responders, victims and their families following the Aurora theater shooting.

Not long after police and other first responders swarmed the Century 16 theater in Aurora on the night of July 20, 2012, John Nicoletti arrived. A psychologist specializing in trauma recovery and police and public safety psychology, his job was to counsel workers at the scene.

Four years after Aurora, and after incidents like the Orlando, Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings, Nicoletti says all of society, not just law enforcement officials and first responders, has to learn to adapt to a "new normal."

"The new normal for kids in Colorado is to have lockdown drills," Nicoletti said. "That never occurred prior to Columbine -- the kids grow up with that, they don't have a fear, they know what lockdowns are. They know things they never knew before."

Nicoletti spoke with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel.

Nicoletti on recovering mentally from a tragedy:

"After a tragic event, it kind of consumes a person, it's all they think about...what we want to do is move it to the memory center. You can never get rid of a trauma, or unsee what it is you've seen -- the best you can do is make it a memory. When you hear about someone with PTSD, that means they had a traumatic event, but didn't move it to their memory center."

On why denial may not be a bad thing:

"We have assumptions on how the world is supposed to operate; so if you're a parent, you have an assumption that when you send your little kids off to school in the morning, they'll come back alive at the end of the day and they won't be killed like at Sandy Hook or Arapahoe (a suburban Denver high school where a student was killed by a fellow student in December, 2015), or Columbine.

"So parents at some level know about school shootings -- but you have to send your kids off to school. So in order for parents to do that, they have to engage in a little bit of denial -- if we can't tell ourselves it won't happen again, or that our schools are safe, and we send them off anyway, life would be a miserable place."

On law enforcement's ability to "bounce back" in the face of shootings like Dallas and Baton Rouge:

"It changes the perception of first responders when they're responding to calls; what we're also seeing around the country is that it's creating significant apprehension in significant others and kids, because they're hearing about it too. The officers are on the streets, but they have a certain sense of being in control -- but the family members back home, they're hearing about it and wondering if it can happen in the Denver area."