Maegan Copeland was walking the streets of Nice, France, with her family July 14, 2016, when a terrorist drove a 19-ton truck into a crowd, killing 84 people and wounding 202 others. Her 11-year-old brother Brodie and her father, Sean Copeland, were among the dead.
It was Bastille Day and the Copeland family had traveled to France in part to celebrate the 40th birthday of Sean’s wife, Kim Copeland, and the birthday of his son from a previous marriage, Austin.
“I was reaching over, getting candy, and then I leapt back,” she said. Her now 23-year-old brother, Austin, tackled her out of the way. “My dad saw what was going on, his eyes popping, he shouted, ‘Austin, grab Maegan.’ My dad went in to save Brodie, but there was no way he could.”
Eight days afterward, Maegan Copeland returned to Austin with her surviving family members and held a funeral for her father and brother.
“The brain, it protects you,” she said. “I was in shock for a while. I didn’t realize you could be in shock for months.”
Later, her mind would loop back to the attack. Copeland, 30, said she was “traumatized by any moving truck.”
While she was in France, people helping the families of victims told her she needed to find a therapist who specialized in EMDR, which she later learned stood for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
The therapy, Copeland said, is why she can talk now about the events of that day. She thinks about the people of Sutherland Springs who experienced the church shooting, anyone who was in Las Vegas at the time of that shooting, or the people in Houston and along the Gulf Coast who lived through Hurricane Harvey.
Some experts estimate that 30 to 40 percent of people who directly experience a disaster will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. It can take months to set in but can come in the form of flashbacks or a sense of re-experiencing the event. It can render victims numb to the things they usually enjoy. They also can experience survivor’s guilt, or hypervigilance, in which the nervous system overreacts to common events like the honking of a horn; or they might avoid things that remind them of the traumatic event.
Copeland wants more people to know about EMDR therapy and how it can help.
“It kind of replaces the negative feelings around how they died and creates a sense of peace with it,” Copeland said of her experience.
EMDR therapy was developed in 1987 by psychologist Francine Shapiro, who said she was walking in a park when realized that when she moved her eyes back and forth, it minimized the way she thought about distressing memories.
Shapiro developed a specific technique in which a trained professional takes a client through a traumatic event. As the client talks about it, the therapist uses either a light screen or a wand that moves from side to side, or headphones with tones that alternate from the left ear to the right ear, or vibrating tappers in the client’s hands that vibrate from side to side. That bilateral movement causes the person’s eyes to move from side to side rapidly.
That eye movement is similar to the way our eyes move during rapid eye movement sleep, which is the way the brain naturally processes the events of day, said Rick Levinson, a licensed clinical social worker in Austin and an EMDR trainer who is working with Las Vegas shooting survivors.
What happens with a trauma, he said, is the brain cannot take in all this information and effectively process it: “It gets stuck in the central nervous system.”
The brain replays the event over and over again and doesn’t know what to do with it. It causes the person to have a fight or flight response every time they think of that event.
The intensity of the traumatic memory starts to decrease as client and therapist work through the event, said Lauren Gaspar, a licensed clinical social worker at Good Mourning Counseling Center who uses EMDR in her Austin practice.
EMDR, she said, “allows your brain to turn on the prefrontal cortex that allows you to give that memory a more logical or reasonable perception.”
It doesn’t take away the memory, she said, “It allows the brain to not make it significant any more.” It tells the brain and the body, “I don’t need to hold onto this trauma,” she said.
There are now about 8,000 people trained in the United States to use EMDR therapy, said Michael Bowers, executive director of EMDR International Association, which is headquartered in Austin.
The therapy is recognized by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for its use after a trauma or for someone with PTSD.
Several controlled scientific studies have found that EMDR works, but some researchers question whether moving your eyes rapidly back and forth is key. In treating traumatic anxiety, EMDR therapy is better than no therapy, but it’s not better than working with behavior and cognitive-behavior therapists in exposure-based treatments, Scott O. Lilienfeld, an Emory University psychology professor, and Hal Arkowitz, a University of Arizona psychology professor, summarized in an article for Scientific American.
EMDR does have strong proponents.
“It’s like magic to me,” said Carol Logan, the staff psychologist for the Austin Police Department. She said she can get to the root of what’s happening with a police officer faster using this technique, and she’s found that officers are more willing to do EMDR than to do traditional talk therapy.
Logan received a $38,800 grant from the city’s Office of Innovation to do research comparing EMDR with stress management therapy with 911 operators and police dispatchers. She’s working with Vanderbilt University and elicited the help of 22 EMDR therapists in Austin to help her study the difference between 30 operators or dispatchers who get EMDR and 30 who get stress management therapy.
What’s different about this study is often these operators and dispatchers don’t have one traumatic event. They have repeated exposure to traumatic events that are happening to other people.
Logan hopes that, after this study, she can do a study on her work with police officers. She believes using EMDR to help police officers process the events they witness can help them be less likely to use excessive force in the future.
The city of Austin also has put $50,000 in the 2018 budget to train therapists who work in victim services on how to use EMDR.
“I’m really proud of the city of Austin for funding research like this,” Logan said. “We’re doing something really important here.”
Copeland’s advice for people who witnessed the recent tragic events is to “hang in there,” she said. “It’s a tough road ahead, but be resilient. Things will get better. My brother and I are living proof of that.”
Want more information on EMDR?
The Austin-based EMDR International Association can connect you to a trained therapist through its Find a Therapist link, emdria.org. More than 100 therapists are listed within a 25-mile radius of downtown Austin.
Other mental health resources
The state of Texas has a network of mental health authorities that can help connect residents with treatment via confidential referral lines 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Financial assistance is available.) To search for a mental health authority near you, visit www.dshs.texas.gov/mhservices-search.
In Travis County, those services are provided by Integral Care, 512-472-4357 (crisis line) and 512-447-4141 (main phone), www.integralcare.org.
Find more coverage of the Sutherland Springs church shooting and its aftermath with this story on mystatesman.com .