In the wake of the recent shooting disaster in Orlando, we find ourselves faced with the difficult task of moving forward with purpose and hope, both as individuals and as a people. While we may not have been directly touched by this event, or we may have been personally immune to such tragedies in our own past, disasters like this one may feel omnipresent and inescapable in today’s media rich culture. This is especially true now, since the nature of this particular event was incited by hate towards a specific group, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, which has been under a perennial struggle for acceptance.
There are many ways to directly help the victims and their families, but from my perspective as a counselor educator who researches crisis, disasters and cultural issues, I would like to share three thoughts as to how all of us can intentionally focus on the future: helping others, helping ourselves and ensuring that them and me are instead us.
I am so heartened by the outpouring of love for those who were affected and the political resolve for doing what we can to ensure that such tragedies become far more rare. In terms of the literature on disaster response, I would say that we are in the “honeymoon” phase of disaster, characterized by community cohesion and shared resolve. Unfortunately, research shows that this period is only temporary, usually lasting a few weeks, and is followed by disillusionment. Eventually, survivors will realize that there are limits to the assistance available. Those that were injured or lost loved ones will have to go on with rebuilding their lives. The universal calls to action and justice may be met with the reality that institutions often change slowly, if at all. A painful reminder of this can be seen in the heartfelt essay from the mother of one of the Sandy Hook victims, “Orlando, I Am Sorry Our Tragedy Wasn’t Enough to Save Your Loved Ones” (written by Nelba Márquez-Greene, a licensed marriage and family therapist and mother of a child who died in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut). So, for my first thought, I challenge you to maintain your resolve and support through the impending disillusionment.
In the months and years to come, those affected will face anniversaries of the tragedy and trigger events such as missed birthdays. The strongest protection against disillusionment is resilience. If you are in the position to help a survivor or someone affected, challenge yourself to be a point of resilience for that person for as long as you can. That being said, resist the urge to parachute in, and if you feel compelled to respond to someone that you don’t personally know, be sure to do it as part of an organized response effort. Also remember to act within your own scope of care as a friend, counselor or human. For a good article on how to respond, I would suggest Jamie Aten’s recent piece in the Washington Post, “Tips for helping a loved one after a tragedy, from a Christian disaster expert.” And, if you are now calling for political change, don’t stop until that change is realized.
As a helping professional that has worked with trauma survivors and responders, I have seen many times how those not personally affected by crisis may yet still be touched. The literature is full of terms such as vicarious traumatization, secondary traumatic stress (STS), compassion fatigue and burnout. All of these constructs describe how bystanders and responders to disaster can themselves have real physical and emotional reactions. STS can result from witnessing (directly or indirectly) a traumatic event, whereas burnout results from repeated and prolonged exposure to stress. The media will be full of vivid descriptions of the event, and it’s likely [that] continuous coverage will keep us on alert. Daniel Antonius condensed much of the recent literature on this phenomenon after the 2015 San Bernardino shooting in his article, “How the media-related ‘contagion effect’ after terror attacks impacts our mental health.” Consequently, my second thought is to protect yourself from the vicarious traumatization that you may experience from our 24 hour news cycle and practice self-care.
If you are more closely connected to the Orlando event, either because of some prior life experience with trauma or because you closely identify with the targeted group, then I would urge you to be on guard for common stress reactions. The list of possible symptoms is long and includes changes in emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical and spiritual domains. If several of those listed symptoms look like they apply to you, then do the following:
- Unplug – turn off the TV and social media
- Do what normally helps you feel better (e.g. exercise, listen to music, be creative or routine, spend time with friends, etc.). For a longer list, check out the Department of Health and Human Services’ self-help guide, “Dealing with the Effects of Trauma.”
- Consider pursuing mental health care. As a licensed counselor and trainer of new counselors, I definitely believe in my profession’s power to help those that are struggling. There is no shame in asking for help, and there are often low-cost resources available in your community.
Since this shooting was, effectively, a hate crime, my final thought is one regarding empathy: live the African concept of ubuntu, or “I am because we are.” The construct of empathy is core to professional counseling (for a three minute visual summary, consider watching Brené Brown on Empathy). In my counseling skills classes, we often talk about “getting in the well” and genuinely connecting with others. Those are good clinical skills, but for those of us that aren’t in Orlando and aren’t directly interacting with someone personally affected by the shooting, it isn’t possible to truly show our empathy. Instead, we can ensure that we hold empathy close as a personal virtue in how we relate to others, especially those different from ourselves in beliefs or worldview. In my travels to Southern Africa on research projects and clinical outreaches, I’ve found that the Bantu word ubuntu truly captures this internalized empathy. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “My humanity is caught up, and inextricably bound up, in yours … A person is a person through other persons … A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others [and] does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
In the wake of the recent horrific events in Orlando, I pray that we may all show love for each other, take care of ourselves and remember that I am because we are.
If you are in need of immediate crisis counseling, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
Laura R. Shannonhouse is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), American Counseling Association member and assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org