Sadly, the news is abuzz with coverage of the latest tragedy to befall residents in Colorado. As if there has not been enough heartache in the state, between wildfires and homes destroyed and the now infamous Columbine High School massacre, Colorado seems to have seen more than their share of lives lost and families abruptly torn apart by senseless acts.
No, this is not my typical post about child welfare. If you read my blog intro and some of my previous posts, you know that I have occasionally been distracted by events or topics that are marginally related to my chosen profession. I’ve tweeted about the events in Aurora, Colorado (at the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises) and decided I needed more than 140 characters to express my thoughts and feelings on the early morning events.
First of all, my condolences to those immediately impacted and to the nation as a whole as we collective grieve the unnecessary loss of life. I have had the unfortunate experience of responding to events of mass casualty and know first-hand how incredibly painful such things can be, for families, communities, first-responders, states, and the nation. My sympathies to all.
Secondly, I wanted to share some thoughts about how we, meaning society, respond to such tragedies and what we can learn from them. I tweeted my dismay at the fact that the morning news chose to devote 99% of their airtime to coverage of this horrific event. (There were brief interruptions for weather reports.) While I do not object to the coverage in general, I do think the media has once again gone overboard in their exclusive (and relentless) pursuit of any piece of information, regardless of value in terms of understanding the events. I listened as persons who were directly impacted by the events were paraded on the national news with little regard for the fact that they clearly were still in shock and exhibiting obvious signs of trauma. Based on my understanding of trauma response and recovery, I believe that such coverage does not promote emotional healing; in fact, it can be harmful. Further, it is damaging to the collective psyche of those subjected to the repeated recounting of the tragedy, in my opinion. Yes, I believe there is great value in debriefing; however, airing sobbing victims on the national news can hardly be considered therapeutic.
Historically, we have seen a tendency for ‘copy-cat’ crimes to follow such tragedies. I believe this is, in part, due to the excessive attention given to such events. A person who may be marginally connected to their family, community, and society may view this as a way to gain attention and yes, perhaps even fame to compensate for what they perceive as lacking in their lives.
My suggestions for how this type of event should be handled to maximize healing and reduce unnecessary and repeated trauma follows. Many of my suggestions have to do with the media as I feel that too little attention is paid to the impact of such coverage on everyone, especially those marginally connected in society.
1. Coverage of the event should not dominate the news. A headline is fine; completely turning a newscast over to the event is excessive.
2. Follow-up reports may be news-worthy; but only in as much as they contribute to our understanding of the events and again, do not dominate news coverage.
3. Victims and their immediate family, friends, or others directly involved should not be subjected to the trauma of going before a camera to recount their experience; at least not before their emotional status has been professionally assessed and can be monitored.
4. The name of the alleged assailant and photos should not be broadcast repeatedly. I believe this only encourages others who may seek attention to contemplate similar acts. While the intent may not be to glorify the actions, sustained coverage may inadvertently do just that.
5. Care should be taken to minimize discussion of the event in front of children. The exception is that children can and will hear about such events so it is important that parents and caregivers ensure that they understand such events are not the norm. Also, there may be the opportunity to use it as a teachable moment to explain what actions to take in an emergency situation and perhaps more importantly, to promote compassion for others.
6. This event highlights the importance of paying attention to clues that a person may be emotionally withdrawing or disengaging from family, friends, and the community. As humans, we have an obligation (IMO) to pay attention to the needs of others. This includes reaching out and offering emotional support when needed and raising red flags when it is suspected that a person may be planning harmful or even drastic actions against themselves or others. This may mean having difficult, but necessary, conversations and encouraging others to obtain mental health support when indicated. It may also mean taking more assertive actions such as alerting law enforcement when there is the potential of danger to self or others. It may be uncomfortable or downright painful, but it is far better than the loss of life that occurred today.
7. For communities, it is imperative that there be resources available to promote and support emotional health. Everyone suffers when there are people who are not connected to others and experience emotional trauma and everyone gains when the community is made up of healthy, well-adjusted individuals. It is especially important after this type of event to make sure resources are available to those who may experience on-going trauma. This includes people who may not have personally witnessed an adverse event; this type of event affects everyone.
8. Lastly, as the President said in a morning news conference, (paraphrased) it is important to make your feelings known to others, especially children. This is a wake-up call to reassure others that they are unconditionally loved. Yes, the world can be a frightening place and at times like this, it is important that people have the emotional support of family and friends.