As I sit to write this blog entry, I reflect on a simple question I was asked today regarding the Boston Marathon explosions. "Why are there so many acts of violence on innocent people lately?" When I was in graduate school, we were taught never to ask the "Why?" question because the default answer was always "I don't know". The default answer to the question posed to me could be that simple, "I don't know why there is a rise in violence." But, that answer is too simple and does not pay the respects of reflection the question warrants.
As I await my deployment orders for Boston, I reflect to several weeks ago when I was alerted to a shooting in the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, DE. The father of a man who kidnapped his three young daughters in 2007 opened fire with a handgun at the New Castle County courthouse killing his former daughter-in-law and her friend and wounding two police officers. This came only a week after a Wilmington Police Officer was shot in the face while performing a traffic stop. These stories fall under the shadow of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the looming nuclear attack from North Korea, and the outcry for gun control.
I often worry my blogs may not be politically correct or accurate to both sides of a debate. I attempt to give my opinion in a logically thought out manner by researching the subject matter and compiling a list of pros and cons. This topic has touched too close to home for me to remain completely unbiased. My reflections on the topic of violence have to be from my viewpoint because of what I do and who I am. As a trauma therapist, I am often called upon to help victims and families of violence to cope with the situation and begin the healing process. I work closely with Law Enforcement, Fire Service, and Emergency Medical Personnel to provide comfort and aid to those affected by life's tragedies. And, when the needs arise, I help Law Enforcement, Fire Service, and Emergency Medical Personnel find peace and healing as life's tragedies inevitably affect them as well. I am ever vigilant of what affects me emotionally, physically, mentally, and even spiritually during these crisis calls. I immediately reflect back to my recent deployment to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. I posted a picture I took of a memorial in Sandy Hook, CT. In the caption, I wrote, " I have been trained to counsel people during tragic times but the overwhelming sorrow is indescribable. I have told people throughout my time here it is normal and healthy to cry. As my heart hurts, I find myself crying with the ones I have provided comfort. I hurt for them, not as a professional but as a father, a son, and a human. God bless these tiny souls so they may find peace". I cannot be completely unbiased to the subject of violence. I can give facts, which are easily researched, but I have to give my opinion as well.
Currently,the United States has substantially more mass shootings but the same percentage of psychiatrically suffering patients than any other nation. We have more firearms in our country than in any other comparably developed nation. An individual in the United States is about a hundred times more likely to die due to the discharge of a firearm than in any other Western nation. Our government's response to these undisputed facts is the need for gun control or a ban on assault weapons. Opponents of this action post feverishly about the second amendment and how no one will take their guns away from them. Meanwhile, two homemade bombs are detonated at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon killing two and injuring dozen more. The issue of violence in our society has little to do with whether Joe Politician and Joe American can agree on what is designated as an assault weapon. In an instant lately, our rights as US citizens have been taken away not by our Government or legal gun owners, but by individuals who are not playing by society's rules.
When violence strikes without warning it can leave lasting scars not only physically, but emotionally as well. Whether it is a terrorist attack or some domestic threat, watching innocent people being directly affected by violent actions pulls at everyone’s heartstrings. Fear can be a debilitating emotion, and how you cope with that fear is as important as the safety measures you take. After a frightening situation, overwhelming danger or a sudden loss of security, you may experience what is commonly called “post-traumatic stress.” Even a perceived or imagined threat of violence or danger can be as emotionally disturbing as a real one. When we experience an event as life threatening, it shatters our basic assumptions about ourselves and the world we live in. We all handle traumatic events differently. It is not unusual to feel hyper-alert or jumpy, to have difficulty going to sleep, or to feel any number of physical or emotional symptoms. I believe the surge in the rate of violence has left us all questioning ourselves and our safety.
The common thread in many terrorist attacks is how people respond after the incident. According to the American Psychological Association many people who have witnessed these events “may go into a state of acute stress reaction.” In this state of acute stress reaction, we are not able to make proper decisions or judgments. We are not able to fully control our thoughts and our emotions. With this said, it would stand to reason the US Society has be bombarded with debilitating violence over the past several years leaving us afraid, angry, emotional, and fatigued.
While people never tend to forget tragic or horrendous events, easing the feelings that are associated with these traumas can be mitigated by taking specific actions in your life. The following tips have been compiled from the Kansas State Cooperative Extension Service, University of Illinois, American Psychological Association and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Provide direct help in dealing with the disaster - Help an elderly or homeless person who is affected by the disaster. Volunteer by helping your fire department or police department during their times of need. Many communities have Community Emergency Responder Teams for neighborhoods. This is a good way to help in times of need. If you are removed from the situation give blood or money to charitable organizations that are helping with the relief effort.
Talk and listen - Sharing feelings with others, especially family, friends and neighbors, helps people deal with and overcome anxiety and feelings of helplessness. On the same token, listening can help others cope with these same feelings. One of the best ways to help is to lend an ear.
Identify your feelings - Understanding your feelings can help you realize that you are feeling the effects of stress and sympathy. Knowing yourself can help you cope with the abnormal situation you might find yourself in.
Show by words and actions that you care - Act. Don’t be afraid of doing the wrong thing, or offending someone, just try to help in any way you can. A word of support or a helping hand goes a long way to encourage other people who are also trying to cope in a difficult situation.
Realize that you are not alone - When it comes to terrorism, realize there are numerous law enforcement and government agencies that are trying to prevent and solve the problem of international terrorism. Knowing that you are not alone in this situation is an important step in dealing with your fears.
Get back to your daily routine as soon as possible - You might not be able to do all of the things you once did, but trying to get back to some sense of normalcy is important in the healing process. Make sure you also maintain good sleeping and eating habits.
Realize that not everyone heals at the same pace - Don’t be judgmental if you have found your way out of the emotional pitfalls of a disaster, but your spouse, son or neighbor is still feeling the pain.
Remember you have overcome obstacles in the past - Try to remember what you did in other difficult situations and see if those skills can be used in the current crisis.
Limit watching the news - Watching the same event time after time will not help you in the healing process. Collecting important information is important, but watching just for the sake of shock is not healthy.
Avoid major life decisions - When people are under stress or bereavement they cannot make logical decisions. Immediately after a traumatic event is not the time to change careers, move or change your relationships. Give it time, and then make the decision.
Keep helping - The disruptions caused by a traumatic event may continue for a long while. Recovery may take even longer. Friends, family members and neighbors will need regular acts of kindness and understanding to maintain their morale and put their lives back together.