Today is the day to learn the true lesson from Newtown. Today occurs a couple of months after the inaugural year of mourning, after the memorial services and after the “dust has settled” for those who are not personally connected to Newtown and its resilient community. Today epitomizes the “Now what?” question, and its answer may surprise you. If we fail to learn the lesson from this significant day, our meaning from this tragedy could be lost.
Most of you may be expecting me to launch into various social and political issues of the day. One expectation might include a discussion of gun control in America. We could talk about the need for increased security in our schools. We could reference the importance of mental health screening and increasing the support of community mental health resources. We could debate the possibility of arming teachers within the classroom. We could lobby our government leaders to pass legislation that would help protect the children of our great nation. We could even ask questions of a spiritual nature, such as “Where is God in all of this?” or further explore the problem of evil and how it sometimes raises its ugly head even in a town of 28,000 residents.
We could discuss those problems at length, but those problems will be covered in other writings at other times. The actual lesson involves so much more than politics or debates. The lesson we need to learn is about trauma and its impact on each other’s lives.
So, let me clear at this juncture and offer my full disclosure. I am a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with clients who have experienced trauma and grief. Some of my clients are combat veterans who have served our country faithfully in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and other parts of the world. Some of my clients have suffered interpersonal violence. Some have experienced “unspeakable terror” as children, enduring both physical and sexual abuse from the people they trusted and loved. I have listened to my clients as they have told me unimaginable stories that will not be uttered here. However, I believe that knowing their stories has made me a better counselor, a better husband and a better member of my community.
And it seems the flipside is also true for my clients. There is incredible healing in clients telling their stories. They feel more “human” after being able to tell their story. For most of my clients, their stories were meant to be kept secret or existed only in the darkness. Therefore, telling someone else about their burden brings a measurable amount of light into their life as they expose the truth.
The December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., was a traumatic event to be sure, but it happened on a public scale, not in secret in the darkness. As defined by the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, trauma involves being “exposed to an event that involves actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence by directly experiencing the traumatic event, witnessing it or learning that it happened to a close family member.”
Most of you reading this are already aware that the events of Newtown were considered traumatic for all involved. So, what now? The answer is realized in understanding that trauma is much more prevalent than most might believe. Much of the interpersonal trauma that people experience happens in secret; it is not aired on national television by media outlets. Being raped or molested as a child is not something that is tweeted about or announced as a status on someone’s Facebook page. That type of trauma does not go viral on YouTube. The truth is that trauma often happens on an interpersonal level within the shadows of our own families and relationships.
The National Center for PTSD cites lifetime prevalence for the exposure of trauma. The organization says that 51 percent of women and 61 percent of men have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. I may have lost some of you with that last statistic. You may still be in shock or denial. However, that statistic illustrates the need to learn the most important lesson from the recent anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown. It involves increasing both personal and public awareness of the prevalence and impact of trauma. By deciding to increase your knowledge of trauma and promote a greater awareness of its prevalence, you are honoring those who lost their lives at Sandy Hook.
You are now faced with a decision. Perhaps you need time to process what I’m writing. Perhaps it will take you some time to comprehend the real lesson of Newton and decide to learn more about trauma and its impact. If so, I understand. Take all the time you need, but realize that as each day passes, the opportunity may be slipping away because our memories tend to fade over time.
Assuming you have made the choice, here are four things you can do as professional counselors to promote an awareness of the universal impact of trauma:
1) Learn more about trauma. The National Center for PTSD website (ptsd.va.gov) is a good place to begin. Additionally, searching Counseling Today or the Journal of Counseling & Development for articles on trauma can provide a wealth of information. The annual American Counseling Association Conference & Expo (see counseling.org/conference/hawaii-aca-2014) features a “trauma academy” that offers several excellent presentations on numerous aspects of trauma. Local, state and regional conferences often reveal helpful learning opportunities as well.
2) Have conversations about trauma with your friends, family members and communities. The more you address the topic with people in your life, the more people will be encouraged to bring light to something that often happens in the dark.
3) Conduct a thorough trauma assessment with your clients. Research indicates that more of our clients have experienced unresolved trauma in their lives than is easily observed on the surface as the “presenting issue.”
4) Seek professional help for yourself if needed by talking to a professional counselor in your local area. Remember, healing exists in telling your story.
It is through these steps that you can help promote public awareness of trauma. If you decide to take this course of action, then you will learn the true lesson from Newtown and honor those who died.
Keith J. Myers is a licensed professional counselor and doctoral student of counselor education and supervision at Mercer University. He is also an intensively trained eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapist, and member of the ACA Trauma Interest Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.