Dr. Deborah Silveria had her phone in hand as she stood in the terminal at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA. She was checking last-minute text messages and emails when I met her outside the gate. We were catching a flight to Kansas City because we were speaking together in a presentation on “Officer Wellness” at the CIT International Conference.
“Hi Ryan! All set?”
“Yes ma’am”, I replied.
We boarded our flight and prepared for our trip. But our real journey together started years ago…
Silveria is a licensed mental health professional with a Ph.D in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California. She specializes in treating first-responders who have been exposed to traumatic events.
“I get to help make a difference to the best populations of people: kids and first-responders”, Silveria said.
While completing her undergraduate degree at USC, Silveria originally aspired to be a pediatrician, until she got a job at Options House, the first shelter for runaway juveniles in Hollywood.
“A majority of the kids had runaway because they were the victims of some form of abuse, either sexual or physical. I was so intrigued by the trauma that these kids had experienced in life that I switched my area of study from medicine to psychology”, she said.
For the next several years, Silveria would work with children who had been victimized in heinous acts of violence. While she was completing her doctorate, she worked as the Clinical Director at Family Solutions, a non-profit organization that helped abused children in the foster care system. She loved helping children and all was well until 1994.
On January 17, 1994, a devastating earthquake shook Southern California. It was centered in the City of Northridge, just outside of Los Angeles. This quake destroyed all forms of infrastructure: buildings, bridges, and freeway overpasses collapsed. Not long afterwards, Silveria found herself travelling on a freeway experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I was having trouble sleeping. I would wake up scared every morning at 3:30 a.m. with anxious thoughts that made me feel irritable. Well, that was because the Northridge Earthquake happened at 4:30 a.m. I thought all the intrusive feelings would just go away. There were so many other things triggering these thoughts, like driving my car on the freeway and travelling under overpasses… I was so scared it would collapse on me and crush me.”
A friend intervened and recommended Silveria check out a new therapeutic process, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
“It was like magic!”, she said. “After 3 sessions, I felt such relief. I knew if EMDR could help me that it could do the same for so many other people who’ve experienced something traumatic in their lives.”
This experience may have very well been the turning point in Silveria’s career. For several years, she had already been helping kids who had experienced trauma, usually as a result of being the victim of abuse. She developed a real passion for understanding and treating trauma, and her attention started including first-responders.
Silveria comes from a military and law enforcement family. Her father served in the U.S. Army; her grandfather and uncle both served at the Los Angeles Police Department. She had several conversations with her uncle about terrible calls he had responded to during his law enforcement career. It was clear that some of the bad calls had still stuck with her uncle so many years later.
Silveria began helping first-responders. She was invited to help the California Highway Patrol with Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) training. That is when she met Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod from The Counseling Team International (TCTI).
“I knew Nancy by name because we ran in some of the same circles and she had a strong reputation for helping first-responders”, Silveria said. And in 2009, Silveria joined the team of clinicians at TCTI.
Today, Silveria has a small private practice where she sees about 25 clients, ranging in age from children to adults. However, more of her time is spent working as a contract clinician for TCTI. Serving at TCTI allows her to see all types of first-responders (peace officers, corrections officers, dispatchers, firefighters, EMTs) who are referred to TCTI through their respective agencies or Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). She is also an instructor, teaching various training classes for TCTI, such as CISM, Peer Support, suicide prevention, and CIT. Silveria also consults with other mental health professionals for EMDR training.
Silveria works for TCTI to change the “Suck It Up” attitude that has been so prevalent in first-responder culture in the past. TCTI lets her see clients in her private practice, teach different training classes for first-responders, and make public presentations through various speaking engagements, both internationally and locally in Southern California.
“Symptoms of PTSD have to do what happened to you, not what’s wrong with you. They have a neurobiological root and research shows we can rewire that to make first-responders better. I get to help make first-responders better than when they first started seeing me”, said Silveria.
I know all of this firsthand. Years ago, Silveria and TCTI helped me.