By David Joel Miller.
Can we be traumatized by watching news coverage of mass tragedies?
Here in America, we have once more to consider an incident in which a shooter took a number of lives and died in the process.
I am gravely saddened by the events in Connecticut. My heart goes out to the families of the victims and those in that community whose lives will forever be altered by these events. I am also saddened by the implications this event has for our future.
There was a time when schools, churches, and hospitals were safe places, places of spiritual and psychical healing. That illusion of safety or even the possibility of safety in this modern world has been shattered.
For me, that allusion perished when I heard about the bombings of churches in the south and the shooting of students at Kent State. From this vantage point, those now seem like the first few waves of a hurricane. We now witness one violent incident after another each more horrific than the last.
We know that the violence is growing. What we don’t yet know is how to respond. We also know that the window of opportunity to make some sense of this tragedy is small.
What is the effect of watching the extended coverage in the aftermath of these tragedies? We know that the events of September 11, 2001, have been highly studied. We found that watching extended television coverage of the event had the potential to traumatize people who were at some distance from the event. This form of trauma is understood as “secondary or vicarious traumatization.”
Young children who watched the repeated coverage of the planes flying into the towers began to believe that thousands of planes were hitting towers all around us and that soon one would be coming to their town. The more you see an event covered the more “normal” and expected that event becomes.
This is my worry, that so many of these events have been covered in such detail that troubled youths are coming to believe that this is “normal” or “typical” behavior. The question has stopped being if another school shooting will happen but rather when.
Most of us witness a tragedy and over time the event fades from our memory. The closer you are to the event, the more it personally affects you and the longer you will hold it in your memory. If you lost a child or knew someone who did you will remember the rest of your life. But the rest of us, those of us at a distance will forget quickly. Those who will consider repeating this event, they will not forget.
In the aftermath of a tragedy, the news coverage stops in a day or two. The magnitude of our collective memory is dependent on the “news cycle” and the occurrence of the next great tragedy. The typical person is stressed for thirty to fourth five days and then their stress response returns to normal. Six weeks after 911 most schools in America had returned to close to normal.
Not everyone gets over the event. More media watching was not just harmful to children. Hours of T. V watching after 911 were connected to more stress in adults as well (Schlenger, 2002.)
Who is most likely to be affected by secondary trauma? Those who had a previous mental health issue!!
What effects will we expect to see in children who experience secondary traumatization in the aftermath of a tragedy? They are likely to become anxious. Those students are likely to be noticed. They will become fearful, anxious, may refuse to attend school, and they may wet the bed. They are likely to receive treatment. But the others?
Some will become depressed. They will isolate. They are likely to go unnoticed. In our society we often “make treatment available”: but we are reluctant to seek out those children who desperately need help but fail to ask for it.
We may also see some children, a small number, who as a result of watching the events unfold, in person or in the media, will experience episodes of dissociation and psychosis. They may just shut down and fail to respond when spoken to. They may think they are seeing and hearing killers at every turn. Early treatment can help these children.
There is one last way in which children can respond to trauma. This response is a high risk to society response. These are the youth who are most at risk to become the next wave of schoolyard shooters and the least likely to receive any help.
Some people, children or adults, respond to trauma with what we professionals call “conduct problems.” They get angry, refuse to comply with requests, swear or throw things. They protect themselves from our intrusion by trying to drive us away. Most of the time this works for a while.
These are the students who are expelled from school, the ones who believe they are failures at life. By removing them from schools, by getting them on homestudy we create the illusion that we are keeping our schools and our society safe. We continue to sweep our damaged people under the rug rather than offer them the reparative services that might prevent future tragedies. Our jails and prisons are full of those who were rejected by society and who turned to violence. Some of them could have been saved, the course of their lives and ours altered if we had been willing to provide the kind of help they needed in the early part of their life.
We will argue over the next few months over the role of guns in this and other tragedies. The politicians and others will offer solutions to make our schools safer. More metal detectors, more police dogs and more training for teachers and first responders on what to do after the tragedy.
Within six weeks most of these initiatives will have been forgotten.
Beyond the great tragedy that just occurred a greater tragedy looms. We will fail to address the root causes of violence among young people. We will pursue the illusion that we can be safe by excluding the violent when in fact they are the wounded among us.
We will spend for more security measures, but I have my doubts we have the will to spend for prevention and treatment of those who will be our next generation of perpetrators.
For more on what we know about the causes of violence by youth and the ways to prevent that violence, you might want to look at the materials at the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
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