I sat stunned as I listened to news reports of yet another tragedy of mass violence causing at least three deaths and over 170 injuries. This time, the horrific event was even closer to home-in Boston. Another person had shattered the social contract we expect of all people-to nurture fellow humans and not to kill them. The act of violence killed and maimed; it also diminished our trust in others.
The pain of the trauma seemed personal to me as I imagined how awful it must be for not only the victims, but also their loved ones who would be receiving phone calls telling them about the suffering or death. You see, because of my husband's death in an accident, I know what it is like to receive a call saying the person you love more than life itself has died unexpectedly and suddenly. It reopened wounds of grief and loss I thought had long ago healed.
Because most of us have experienced loss or other traumas, events such as the Newtown, Connecticut, or the Boston tragedies can re-traumatize us. The war veteran sees images of the bomb blast on television that are too similar to what she experienced in the war zones, prompting symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A first responder at the scene or an emergency health care provider at the nearby hospital is impacted by having to rescue a wounded child, recognizing how fragile his own son's life is. He has intense nightmares for weeks.
When we collectively experience a traumatic event such as Monday's bombing in Boston, we are reminded that the wounds needing healing are not just the physical injuries. We must also tend to the emotional wounds perpetrated by the event. These injuries to our mental health can disrupt the lives and functioning of the victims, their families, first responders, health care personnel, witnesses either in person or through the media, and those with past trauma histories.
So, how do we heal these attacks on our mental health? How do we restore our sense of well being?
First, we can recognize when we might need the help of someone who is professionally trained to provide this type of treatment and healing. Do you find yourself crying much more than usual? Is it hard to concentrate on your work? Do you feel too weary to continue with life's usual activities? Do you not enjoy the things you usually love? Are you unusually irritable or anxious? Are frightening dreams disrupting your sleep? If so, call a local mental health provider for help. Psychologists, counselors, and other mental health therapists can help you learn skills to cope and to start feeling better again. Think of it as mental health first aid. If you don't already have a mental health therapist or know whom to call, ask your faith leader (rabbi, priest, minister) or your primary care provider for a referral. In Maine, many primary care providers have a behavioral health specialist in their office as part of the care team who can help you.
Second, reach out to your social network (friends, family, neighbors, faith community) for support as well. Sharing the feelings stimulated by trauma can help with our collective healing as a community. Contact people you care about to share with them how much you care. Tragedies often remind us of how special our loved ones are to us.
Third, pay special attention to the emotional needs of children during this time. Children who see images of shootings or other catastrophes or who hear about them (and in today's mass media it is hard for them not to be exposed when something bad happens), they often feel unsafe. They might think the event happened geographically close to them and, therefore, that they are in immediate danger. Because they do not have fully-developed emotional coping skills, it becomes even more important for children to be able to trust that they have a safe place in the world, a secure base, and people who consistently love and protect them. Provide consistent schedules and routines for them, so they feel secure. Unusually disruptive behaviors might indicate they are experiencing emotions that are difficult for them to express verbally. Give them opportunities to talk about their fears and feelings so you can reassure them. Be open and honest with them about the event, answering their questions but don't dwell unnecessarily on the topic. If possible, spend a few extra minutes with each child over the next few days until the insecurities pass. If you don't have children in your household, this is a great time to give extra phone calls, texts, or visits to grandchildren, nieces/nephews, or neighborhood children, so they can be comforted by the fact that they have many adults in their lives to care for them and to keep them safe.
In the aftermath of tragedies, it is important for the wounded to get help to take care of their injuries so they can heal. This is true for those injured physically by the disaster. It is just as true for all of us who are impacted emotionally by what we experience or witness. By taking steps to become healthy again, we will be able to reach out to help others as well. Reinforcing each other's recovery is another way we become a stronger community that can overcome the damage of tragedies in our world.
SAMHSA - the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of U.S. DHHS - has guides and resources for individuals coping with tragedy and traumatic events. Resources may be downloaded from the Trauma-Informed Care & Alternatives to Seclusion and Restraint page on the SAMHSA website.
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