Published on June 17th, 2016 | from CAMH
Resilience in the face of tragedy
By Dr. Vivien Lee, Psychologist with the Work, Stress and Health Program
Many of us woke up on the morning of Sunday, June 12, 2016, to news of a horrific tragedy involving the shooting of patrons of Pulse Nightclub – a bar in Orlando, Florida with a predominantly gay clientele celebrating a Latin-themed night. At the time of writing, 49 individuals had been killed, with at least 53 others injured. These figures of course do not include the witnesses to the horror, first responders to the scene, medical staff attending to the victims, or family and friends of the victims who have to deal with the aftermath.
We tend to demand answers to such tragedies. How could this have happened? Politicians and journalists in the US are pointing to a number of potential contributors, including (but certainly not limited to): gun control laws, Islam, ISIS, immigration, anti-gay prejudice, mental illness, and racism. Members of the LGBTQ2, Hispanic, and Muslim communities are feeling vulnerable. The root causes of this crime are no doubt complex. In the meantime, what can we do to try to make sense of and get through this trauma?
There has been increasing research identifying on factors that either promote resilience or increase the risk of developing mental health difficulties after a mass trauma, disaster, or terrorist attack. Whether you are directly impacted (as a victim, witness, family, friend); member of a community that is feeling vulnerable; or a member of society at large, there are steps you can take to cope and potential grow through this tragedy:
“Never let your emotions rule, but always let them testify.”
– Robert Brault
- Allow yourself to feel. Emotional avoidance interferes with processing what has happened and allowing you to move forward. Pushing our emotions inward can result in depression, anxiety, anger, and physical problems. Common feelings after a trauma can include: sadness, grief, anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, shame. Acknowledge them.
- Recognize our commonalities. An urge to blame an “other” and retreat to our “in-group” is understandable at times like these, but what is more helpful is to acknowledge our commonalities with others and realize that we have more in common than we realize. Even though others may look or dress differently or lead lifestyles with which we may not fully agree, we mostly feel the same emotions and seek the same things in life – family, friends, personal or professional achievement and community belonging are only a few examples.
When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”.
– Mr. Rogers
- Notice the everyday heroes & helpers. The images that we tend to see over and over after such a tragedy are of the attackers, weapons, and bloodshed. What we don’t get to see or hear about as much are the individuals who go out of their way to help others, such as (but not limited to): those helping others to escape the attack; first responders (e.g., police, paramedics, firefighters, dispatchers); “Good Samaritans”; medical staff; volunteers; blood donors; and individuals who donate money. Not to mention individuals who organize vigils, fundraising, and community events. There are many, many more helpers out there than attackers.
- Social support. Research consistently shows that social support can serve as a buffer against the negative impact of trauma. Talk to family, friends, or colleagues. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about your feelings, even spending time with others you trust can help. Some people find support in online communities as well, with a caveat to…
- Limit exposure to media. In our current age of instant news, people can get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information. Uncertainty about information can also increase an individual’s anxiety – try to avoid viewing information until details are certain. Viewing the same traumatic images over and over can skew our perception of danger in the world and increase our distress.
- Problem-focused coping. Some of us tend to feel helpless and vulnerable in the face of tragedy. Taking a proactive approach to coping increases our resilience. Spending time with others, physical activity, and minimizing alcohol and drug use are examples of healthy coping. In times of uncertainty, keeping as much of a routine and consistency as possible helps to provide predictability and stability.
- Learning from the past to move forward. No one wants a tragedy as a learning experience. However, what can help us as individuals and communities to move forward is to learn from the tragedy to help prevent future ones. Taking an honest look at how certain individuals and groups continue to face prejudice and discrimination can be difficult, but is a necessary step in opening the conversation and moving forward.
At times like these, public displays of solidarity and community can be important for increasing hope and decreasing a sense of helplessness and isolation. Vigils for the victims of the shooting bring communities together. Public events such as the upcoming Toronto Pride Parade bring together individuals from the LGBTQ2 community as well as those who support them and equal rights to remind vulnerable people that they are not alone. CAMH employees and friends will be marching with members of the York Region Paramedic Service (YRPS) in this year’s Toronto Pride Parade to show our solidarity with and support of the LGBT2Q community in general and victims of the anti-gay violence in particular.
We’re all in this together.