James Madison University

Helping the Helpers: Dr. Lennis Echterling’s Work with Local First Responders

By: Erica Dodson
Posted: March 18, 2015

PHOTO: Lennis  Echterling

Dr. Lennis “Lennie” Echterling has been a Professor of Counseling Psychology at James Madison University for over 23 years, but is also active in the Harrisonburg community. For Lennie, giving back to his community has been a way of life since graduate school. He has devoted his time to caring for the mental health of first responders and other crisis victims since graduate school at Purdue University, where he worked in the crisis center. When a series of tornados wreaked havoc on Indiana, he worked with the Neighbor to Neighbor psychological response program in its early stages to bring the community back together. Through this work, Lennie and his colleagues were struck by the work of first responders, such as police, firefighters, and other emergency personnel and their ongoing support of the community, and he brought that interest with him when he moved to the Shendandoah Valley.

“We began thinking ‘who’s helping the helpers?’” he recalls. “We began looking at ways to offer a service to them, and provide opportunities to them that aren’t formal counseling, but bring them together to support one another and engage in their own healing process.”

When I recently had the chance to sit down with Lennie for an interview, his passion for others was evident immediately. Once I mentioned that my father used to work as a firefighter, he was instantly ready to hear all about his experiences rather than discuss his own work. It’s easy to see how he fosters a comfortable and supportive environment when conducting group sessions.
Today, Lennie uses his skills to support emergency personnel in the Shenandoah Valley by facilitating Critical Incident Stress Debriefings. These informal group sessions typically consist of bringing a small group of first responders who have shared a common experience together in a quiet place so they can discuss how that experience affected them. These debriefings can become uplifting as well as cathartic.

The first responders not only discuss the disturbing situations they encounter in their line of work, but also how those working with them helped them push forward. Lennie finds that these moments are particularly emotional. “I invite them to show their gratitude to someone, and that’s when their voice catches, when they say, ‘I don’t know if I could have done that without you being there.’ I’ve learned to appreciate the power of positive emotions in deeply traumatic times.”

Helping these brave men and women move from their traumatic experiences toward a collective sense of empowerment is a source of motivation in his teaching. He finds reward in passing along his wisdom to the students in his grief counseling and crisis intervention class.

“I come to the class with a sense of urgency,” he explains. “Each of those students is going to be dealing with crises, with people who are in the worst moments of their lives. I want to make sure that they’re prepared for that awesome responsibility, and that they have a sense of what they can do to have a true healing impact.”

Lennie’s work has not gone unnoticed. His office is lined with plaques and honors, but toward the end of our interview, he points out only one: a framed certificate proclaiming him an Honorary Colonel in the Virginia National Guard 116th Regiment, thanking him for his work.

“I emphasize to my students who are doing crisis work that we’re not the rescuers,” he stresses. “Instead, we’re joining people who are resilient survivors. We bear witness to their stories as we hear them, and in the process help healing… while recognizing that often the most powerful sources of support are their comrades.”