If you are coping with trauma, don't feel like you should do it alone: we are here to help.
When violence occurs, we feel great heartache for those who have lost family and friends, those who were wounded, and those who saw the tragic events unfold. It also leaves us with a heightened sense of vulnerability and wondering about our own future. No one is left unaffected.
As individuals, we all respond in our own unique way. The incidents cannot be erased, and the memory will always be a part of life. Everyone moves at his/her own pace through the stages of crisis and healing.
- Disbelief and shock
- Excessive use of alcohol
- Irritability and anger
- Headaches and stomach problems
- Apathy and emotional numbing
- Crying for "no apparent reason"
- Low resistance to illness
- Work/school/family problems
- Difficulty making decisions or concentrating
- Inability to focus on school work or extra curricular activities
- Fear and anxiety about the future
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty sleeping
- Excessive worry about safety and vulnerability; feeling powerless
- Changes in eating patterns: loss of appetite or overeating
- Religious confusion
- Loss of trust
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feeling inadequate
- Sadness and depression
- Replaying events in our minds
- Talk about it. Share your feelings with friends, classmates, faculty, and family. Talking and listening to others will help you realize that you are not alone in your feelings.
- Limit media viewing. Take breaks.
- Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest. Exercise. Eat right. Do things that you find relaxing such as going to the movies or a coffee shop with friends, journaling, etc.
- Avoid excess: drinking, drugs, and risk-taking activities. These activities can be a way to medicate your feelings, but in the end will only add to or aggravate the problem
- Stay connected. You may find yourself wanting to isolate from others. Instead, make plans to visit family and friends who can offer reassurance. If you can't visit, increase your contact through emails and calls.
- Take action. Do something positive that will help you gain a greater sense of control. Get involved in campus activities such as a candlelight vigil, benefits, group discussions, the safety committee or other activities where you can make a difference.
- Resume routines. Routines are an important part of helping us get back to living and in healing.
- You may feel overwhelmed by the events that have occurred. Talk with a trusted friend, family member, or spiritual advisor.
- Use campus resources such as Campus Health Clinic and the Counseling Center or reach out to community resources such as your local community mental health center, the local mental health association or trusted faith leaders.
- A feeling of vulnerability may lead you to want to make major life decisions such as dropping out of school, staying closer to family, getting married now because there may not be enough time in the future, etc. Consider postponing such decisions until you have had time to cope through the event and to talk to others about the decisions to be made.
- If you have strong feelings that won't go away, or if intense reactions occur for longer than four to six weeks, you may want to seek professional mental health assistance. Consider obtaining professional assistance if you:
- Are unable to resume normal activities, studies, etc
- Feel depressed, or feelings of hopelessness or anger
- Are extremely anxious
- Continue to have the events dominate your thoughts
- Avoid people or places because they remind you of the event
- Suffer continued physical problems for which no organic cause can be found
- See your life falling apart with a loss of friendships, or problems with family or at school or work
- Are overly reliant on alcohol or other drugs to block emotional pain
- Have thoughts of suicide or hurting others
Tips for Family and Faculty
Events such as the mass shooting that occurred at Virginia Tech are horrifying and arouse anxiety in various ways. College students may feel especially vulnerable. If this could happen on one campus, they are reminded that it could happen anywhere.
The director of Center for Behavioral Health and Accessibility at Southeast Missouri State University offers these suggestions for relating to your student in the aftermath.
- Talk with your student as often as needed. You may find that they want more contact with family at this time, and that is normal.
- Encourage your student to express his or her feelings about the incident. Provide support, realizing that all feelings are legitimate.
- Reassure your student that strong feelings after a tragedy are not uncommon. You might ask, "It must have been so upsetting to hear about the shootings."
- Realize that being away from home may be disconcerting at this time; your student may have never experienced this form of anxiety previously.
- Consider asking, "Are you worried about anything at this point?" This will give your student the opportunity to express any particular fears.
- Encourage your student to seek support from fellow students. Advise your student to be alert to campus communications and familiar with emergency procedures on campus.
- If your student needs to talk with a professional, suggest that he or she make an appointment with Center for Behavioral Health and Accessibility in Dearmont Hall, Room B1, (573) 986-6191.
- If parents are concerned about their student and want to consult with a professional, contact the Center for Behavioral Health and Accessibility or call (573) 986-6191.
Following a Crisis
Unfortunately, tragic events occur on college campuses. These events often leave many students, faculty, staff, and members of the college or university community severely traumatized. When this happens, providing some time in a class setting for emotional debriefing can significantly aid and accelerate the healing process.
Provide time during class to discuss the incident and the students' feelings about it. The students should be encouraged to express feelings in a supportive atmosphere as soon as possible. The professor might say, "I'm still (sad, shaken, upset) by the tragedy that happened on campus on Thursday. I'm glad to be with all of you again. How are each of you (feeling, doing, coping) with this?"
Give the students 30 seconds to a minute to say something. They may need a little time to get the courage to speak. If students do not speak, remind them of your office hours, your e-mail address, and/or your willingness to meet one-on-one. Emphasize that talking about the trauma is a good and healing thing to do. If you share some of your feelings, it will encourage them to talk. The minor loss of instructional time will be insignificant because if they are having serious emotional reactions their learning will be compromised.
It is also important to let them know that when events like this occur, Center for Behavioral Health and Accessibility makes special arrangements to provide support to students who are affected by the situation. If they would like help or support, they should contact that CDS as soon as possible at (573) 986-6191, Dearmont Hall, B1.
Remember that everyone's story is valid. Not everyone has to speak.
Emotional debriefing is not about establishing facts of the incident. It is about expression of feelings. Whatever students say can be answered with:
"It must be terrible to think about that." Or, "It must hurt a lot to remember it that way."
If you are able to identify students who are most upset, a referral to the Center for Behavioral Health and Accessibility would be helpful. When speaking to students, try to do so in a calm relaxed way and don't worry if you cry in front of them. That's okay. When the students finish talking, you can offer them a moment of silence. Suggest that they close their eyes and breathe slowly and deeply three or four times. If you are worried about a particular student, approach her/him privately. If you are concerned about your own reactions to the situation, consider seeking help. Give us a call and we can chat with you about whether you should think about seeking help.
Some students who have had close involvement with the crisis may have very vivid perceptions regarding the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the event. It's not uncommon for them to feel something is wrong with them because the memories of these sensory perceptions are so strong. You can reassure them that such feelings are not uncommon after a tragedy. You might ask:
"Others have reported similar perceptions and thoughts after such a tragedy." Or, "It must have been so upsetting to (see, hear, feel, smell, taste) that."
Some students feel very guilty. They may have been close enough to the situation or victims that they believe there is something they should have done to prevent the tragedy or harm to some of the victims. They may believe that they should have been there to help some of the victims. To address this, you might say:
"After a tragedy, people often second guess themselves, and they are not sure they did everything they could. That's a natural feeling of wanting to help others. It does not reflect what was really possible."
A future orientation is helpful. You might ask: "What are you worried about right now?"
When they speak about future concerns, you might be able to alleviate some of their worries with facts or other ideas and thoughts. Giving students a chance to share their worries reduces anxiety. You can say, "It's really too early to know all the facts about what is going to happen. But you help yourself to deal with this tragedy. Many people find that talking with others, spending time with family, connecting with ministers, rabbis, or priests can hasten the healing process."
After class, if students come to your office to speak in private, remember they are looking for someone who will validate their grief, not talk them out of it. Sitting quietly with them and letting them talk may be all that is needed. Share your own feelings about the tragedy. You might even tell them about other losses you've experienced if you're comfortable with that. If you do talk about past losses, it is helpful to end by saying that for you there was a gradual improvement in hopefulness and mood as time passed. You can simply say that you hope they have the same experience of healing.
These suggestions were adapted from: Poland, S., & McCormick, J. S. (1999), Coping with a crisis: A resources for schools, parents, and communities. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.
The National Mental Health Association
2000 N. Beauregard Street, 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
Missouri Department of Mental Health
1706 E. Elm Street
Jefferson City, MO 65101
(800) 364-9687 or (573) 751-4122