Wednesday, July 05, 2000

Robberies can scar bank tellers for years

By Mara H. Gottfried
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Melody Demarest was shot by a bank robber almost four years ago.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Two masked men robbed a Forest Park bank last week. While one held employees at gunpoint, the other bounded over the counter and bagged the money.

        As is the case with most bank heists, bank employees can experience emotional trauma. And for some, this trauma lasts well after the robbery.

        Greater Cincinnati has seen 35 bank robberies this year, compared with 28 during all of last year. Hundreds of local employees feel the impact.

        Experts said nearly all tell ers suffer some form of short-term emotional trauma. Banks know this and usually offer some form of crisis counseling shortly after a robbery.

        Such was the case after the Forest Park robbery. Bank One offered immediate counseling to employees.

        But for some bank tellers, the psychological effect lasts months and sometimes even years.

        Melody Demarest, a former bank teller at a Loveland bank, was shot in the chest and arm during a robbery there almost four years

        ago. She still has occasional nightmares and tries to avoid banks.

        “I'm still scared to even go in banks, but sometimes it's something you have to do,” said the 25-year-old Goshen Township resident. “When I have to go in, I'm thinking I want to get in and get out as fast as possible.”

        Ms. Demarest is one of the few bank employees actually physically injured in a robbery. In 1998, the most recent figures available from the FBI, 120 bank employees were injured during 7,991 bank-related robberies in the United States.

        Dr. James Daum, a Walnut Hills psychologist who specializes in workplace violence, said the public has become so accustomed to seeing bank heists on television and in movies, they forget that real people are involved.

        “I don't think there's adequate concern given to these people who were exposed to a traumatic event,” he said. “Even though these people weren't necessarily physically hurt, they can be emotionally hurt. Sometimes that is worse than a physical injury.”

        Emotional trauma, particularly in robberies that involve a gun, surfaces because “the sharp reality of the razor-thin line between life and death rushes into consciousness,” said crisis intervention expert Dr. Zachary G. Green, executive director of the Washington-based Alexander Institute for Psychotherapy and Consultation.

        “By its nature, trauma repeats itself in our heads until we feel like we've purged it,” he said.

        A 1999 national study of 141 employees at 42 bank branches showed that all suffered some type of negative response to a robbery, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

        The problems included increased stress, difficulties with work or personal relationships, and reduced productivity at work. The most common symptoms were trouble with sleep or concentration, headaches, nightmares and a heightened sense of awareness.

        Many area banks said that after a robbery they offer employees critical incident stress debriefing in an attempt to curb these reactions. The sessions are usually held a day or two after a robbery.

        “Waiting a day gives people enough time to have a sense of what happened to them,” said Dr. Robert Kaplan, who manages the crisis team of the Cleveland-based Behavior Management Associates Inc. and is the company's executive vice president. “There's too much confusion and disruption on the day of a robbery.”

        The stress debriefing involves talking to employees about the robbery. It may review job performance during the crisis or it might focus on discussing their feelings. The ideal group size is no more than 10 or 12 people.

        “When I go in, I watch out for people who might have long-term problems,” said consultant Dr. Correen Morrill, owner of the Transition and Career Intervention Team in Chicago. “I do a lot of listening and structuring to figure out how to take care of their individual problems. A lot of it is basic problem solving.”

        Having support from family and friends also is essential to recovery, Dr. Green said.

        “Those who do not have family support or face loved ones who don't get it and become impatient with how fast the teller is getting over it should seek some form of counseling,” he said.

        In Ms. Demarest's case, she said it was the support of her family and church that helped her recover.

        “My outlet was being a part of my church and my faith in God,” said Ms. Demarest, who will finish her studies at the Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga in December. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of her father, who is an assistant pastor, and work as a teacher in the ministry or do mission work.

        But some people, particularly those who felt personally threatened during the robbery, may need more long-term counseling than family and friends or the stress debriefing can offer.

        Although the study in the Journal of Occupational and Environ mental Medicine indicated that many employees said they would rather not continue working at the same bank, Dr. Kaplan said stress debriefing sessions can help avert these feelings. Debriefing can reduce teller turnover and absenteeism, he said.

        But one employment expert said the publicity surrounding bank robberies can make it hard to keep or hire tellers.

        “When people come into teller positions, they are often unprepared for that kind of risk for violence and the emotional stress,” said John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based job-placement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. “It can make it difficult for banks because there's more incentive for employees to leave.”

        Several area banks that have experienced robberies said retaining tellers has not been an issue for them.

        Had Ms. Demarest not needed two years to recover from her gunshot injuries, she said, she probably would not have gone back to work as a bank teller.

        “I really don't think I would have been able to handle being back there,” she said.

        But after years of recovery, Ms. Demarest has moved on with her life as she completes her college degree.

        “I'm definitely a stronger person because of this, and my faith in God is definitely stronger,” she said. “It's something that's hard to deal with, but it brought me to the realization of how short life is and how your life can change in an instant.”

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