Community Responses in the Wake of Catastrophic Events

The Second Wave of Trauma: The Need for Broader Community Understanding and Action

It is with indescribable sadness that we have learned of the suicides of two Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors and the father of one of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. While it is overwhelmingly terrible when mass casualty events occur, the deaths that so often follow long afterward tell a second but equally critical story. This second long wave of trauma makes painfully clear the deep and continuing impact of the “first wave” (the traumatic event itself). It affirms that the trauma is NOT over and we desperately need stabilization, ongoing individual support, community activities and prevention beyond what has often been provided in the wake of mass casualty events.   

 

communities can unite in the wake of a mass casualty event

In response to these trauma waves, communities redouble their efforts by:

•  Telling people where they can get help

•  Enlisting many helpers to communicate this

•  Making many services available

Communities always do their very best, but sadly, offering services and hoping people will self-identify and seek help proves insufficient. Two students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas and a father from Sandy Hook didn’t find the help or support needed to uncover hope. And the stark fact looms that even one suicide makes others more likely.  How can we begin to guess whether the suicide of the girl in the bathroom of a school in Orlando was influenced by these recent events?

 

A More Effective Response

A response to a mass casualty event must include more than information as to where to get help and what questions to ask one another. This response must include making connections with one another — deep, meaningful, trustworthy connections. These close interpersonal connections then become the fertile ground for more effective questioning, listening, teaching, learning, and developing social skills. Healthy attachment, as psychology has demonstrated for many years, gives rise to productive modeling and learning. This attachment is not limited to the child-parent bond. 

 

Communities play a role in stabilation and prevention following a mass casualty event

 

It isn’t enough to tell people where to get help if and when they need it. We must find THEM and the way we can do that is by connecting with them. Coming together with them. We need to recognize that because this was a community event, everyone in the community is a part of the solution. Many need connection and a sense of community just as desperately as they need counseling. People who feel destabilized benefit greatly from being in the midst of those who are not struggling, so those others can help provide the anchor of stability. When one is in internal turmoil, being with others who are stable often provides hope.  It is akin to how some people clean house or organize their environment when they’re upset.  It is a means of having a sense of control around you being a comfort when you don’t currently have it within you.  Survivors of a mass casualty event and those whose ranks are experiencing suicide especially need people to come together. Arranging this involves intentional planning in order to overcome our culture’s current trend to individuate, to isolate with earbuds, or to pour over social media in our quiet quarters alone.   

 

Providing Community Support Following Trauma

We can bring individuals together for a common project, or create social settings where there are no agendas other than being together for friendship. These can be youth-friendly gatherings with lots of adults who are actively engaged with those youth. We need to create new opportunities, because as these suicides indicate, the usual social patterns have not been sufficient. Below are some ideas to help specific community groups in the long-term recovery following a mass casualty or catastrophic event:

 

For Elementary and Middle School Teachers and Counselors

For younger students, the occurrence of suicides so long after a mass casualty event isn’t so fear-invoking as hearing about a shooting that has just occurred. In this case, when much time has passed, we don’t recommend that you bring the suicides up to younger students. Rather, all adults must keep their ears to the ground and be prepared to respond to individual students who bring up these suicides or seem to be preoccupied.  This is  good time to ask additional questions when students tell you about something that bothers them, particularly if they seem troubled.  “Is there more you would tell me?” is often enough to hear what is more central to their angst.

 

how to talk to teens after suicides

For High Schools

For those of you using the 5 Radical Minutes program, you could use the circle format in your classrooms. Aim to reinforce that adults in your buildings very much want to be connecting with students who are struggling for any reason. Facilitating circle discussions instead of paired sharing often used in the 5 Radical Minutes program allows you to hear students’ responses, watch their reactions, and likely identify some who may be struggling.  Your prompt could be:

Things in the news that concern me are…” and as students respond, teachers can reply with a word of encouragement or question for each one. 

A word of encouragement might be:

I hope every one of you has two or more teachers in this building that you really know care about you, which brings up another important point in this!  Let’s talk about the people we have to support you in tough times…” (Mention the building counselor, nurse, and any others students might approach. Also include teen hotlines or other resources.)   

A question might be:

“I really see that it is true, this high level of anxiety you speak of many students having. My question is what can you think of that any of us who work here could do to help students with the pressures you’re experiencing?”

For Families

This is a time for families to spend time together, face to face. Put all your phones in the laundry room for an hour. Turn off the television and play board games. Go for a walk. If you’re using the 5 Radical Minutes program, use this family format to generate meaningful discussion. Several suicide prevention programs have helpful information online, including The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Suicide Prevention Resource Center, and the American Association of Suicidology.  These and other experts encourage parents to talk about suicide openly. But before you do, have knowledge of the local resources so you have the number to call if your child speaks of their own or others’ thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

One way of beginning this suicide discussion is to frame the first questions around what kids in general might be thinking. For example:

I was so saddened to hear in the news that two of the survivors from the shooting in Parkland last year had died by suicide this past week. And also one of the Newtown dads. Are kids talking about this?” 

Then, listen for as long as your child will talk. Your next question might be:

“The news talked about one girl having survivor’s guilt and was unable to reconcile that she survived when her friend did not. Adults have difficulty imagining why students would attempt if they come from loving homes and seem to have a good life that doesn’t include an obviously traumatic episode. What do you think kids would identify as the kinds of stressors that students face today that cause extreme stress or anxiety or would bring them to attempt?” 

Again, just listen. With this kind of lead-in conversation and rapt adult listening, youth often find it more natural and easy to move to the direct question parents need to ask. Leading suicide prevention programs all recommend that we ask our youth directly about their own potential thoughts of suicide:

“Are there things in your life that ever bring you to think about hurting yourself or attempting suicide?” 

The most important take-away at this moment is that you know that if your child or anyone they know is thinking about suicide, you need to get help immediately because none of us can save kids by ourselves. It takes a network of support for them, led by someone who is professionally trained to assess and help manage the risk. Don’t go it alone!! 

 

clergy can help following a mass casualty event

For Clergy

Be intentional about your messages during services following a mass casualty event. Although various faiths have a variety of messages about guilt, punishment, right, and wrong, your listeners  will benefit much more when you bring messages reinforcing the value of community, of serving one another, and focusing on the hope that lies in gathering together in love.

 

For Service Clubs

When terrible things happen, communities need more than mental health services for survivors. Imagine that each community is its own tapestry – one with colors, shapes, story, and history. When a mass casualty event happens, the tapestry is torn. People need support to re-weave that part of the tapestry and bind up the gash. Then together, all can continue weaving their collective story, integrating changing patterns, colors and shapes as the “new normal” emerges.

Recovery includes much more than counseling for individuals. We all need new ways to gather people together and remind ourselves who we are to one another. Communities need to be able to come together often in ways that aren’t reminders of what’s happened. Instead, these gatherings become ways of adding to their collective identity — of forging new friendships and finding new hope.

Consider the following ideas for your community:

•  Sponsor weekly pick-up basketball with lots of adults playing together with kids.

•  See if a local church has a rec room you could use once a week to do a variety of arts and crafts for students who would rather do that.

•  Organize outdoor hikes for kids and have lots of adults along for the walk.

        •  Support a local artist in leading a community art project like a huge mosaic or a mural.

•  Organize service activities, including youth.  Action is empowerment!  And we all feel just a little less self-focused on our struggle when life reminds us that there are others who are less fortunate than we are.

everyone in the community plays a role in recover after a mass casualty eventjpg

If your community is one that has suffered a mass casualty event of any sort, the need to continue to gather together in new and differing configurations goes on for years! It is never too late to start.

Crisis Management Institute has many free resources here on the website. And our crisis prevention program can be one of the many tools used to both rebuild a community after a mass casualty event as well as help build stronger connections to mitigate the risk of such a crisis in the first place.  Our 5 Radical Minutes program is a five minute, K-12, every day, every year program that builds a moral compass of kindness, connects students with all other students in the class repeatedly over time, improves classroom and school climate, and builds an internal locus of control and fosters emotional intelligence.

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Comments

  1. Carol Palmer Reply March 26, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    Yes. Please stay alive and contribute to the good things that will happen tomorrow.

  2. LH Shoemaker Reply March 27, 2019 at 6:37 pm

    Insightful guidance from this mentor to school counselors and communities. Thank you, Cheri! As a school counselor (retired), I would wish all schools could recognize that directing more effort at helping kids build connections could have great payback not only for school climate, bullying reduction and social skill development, but also in terms of mental health and potentially, saved lives. Add connections to and within the greater community…what a safety net! Please keep the ideas coming.

  3. Doug Damon Reply March 27, 2019 at 8:14 pm

    Cheri Lovre’s life-changing work uniquely qualifies her to walk people through traumatic crisis with wisdom and compassion. With the incomprehensible losses suffered in the last three decades, her work needs to be made known everywhere so our communities can find a path through these traumatic events and experience healing and hope on the other side.

  4. Natalie A. Ireland, LSW Reply March 28, 2019 at 5:08 am

    Thank you for this important and useful article!!

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