How can we access our power to heal from and prevent gun violence?
Journal of Psychiatry Reform Vol 11#8 May 30, 2022
Associate Clinical Professor, Psychiatrist, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Sacramento, California, USA. [email protected]
An employee from Public Affairs at my work recently sent me an email inviting me to write about “how to cope with mass shootings”. This was the day after another shooting happened in a Texas elementary school, where at least 19 students and 2 adults were killed. She wanted to see if I would be interested in providing advice on how people can cope with the mental health impact of mass shootings. I do not know her personally, but we are already emotionally connected, through our shared humanity. As it is the case for countless other people, we are sad and angry about the death of these children. Other feelings or reactions may include shock, numbness (dissociation from extreme shock, or from desensitization, after so many such events have happened), disbelief, helplessness, despair, avoidance of the media, to name a few. From those of us who were not on site, such an indirect trauma can still affect us, even if it did not happen directly to us or anyone we know. It is called secondary traumatization. If we have been previously exposed to trauma, hearing about it in the news can also be a trigger and generate symptoms that fall into the category of post-traumatic stress disorder (flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, depression, irritability, panic symptoms etc). Trauma affects the whole person, therefore somatic reactions (indigestion, muscular tension, dizziness, insomnia, headaches) are also totally normal. It is important to know that everyone reacts differently, and there is no right or wrong when it comes to affliction from human tragedy. It is important to acknowledge these responses and reach out to one’s social network or health professionals to get support.
Feeling outraged is also normal. After all, there is enough suffering in our world as it is, and this is a form of preventable trauma, just like any form of interpersonal violence. Since children are among vulnerable populations (they are more frequently victimized and they cannot vote), it is our collective responsibility to protect our children and advocate for them. How can we concretely do this? The basic premise is: find your power. Identify it, use it, and expand it. What are your talents and gifts that could channel the outrage to promote effective change? Photography, being active on the political scene, writing a collection of stories from people who have witnessed or experienced gun violence, leading a support group, awareness-raising events, fundraising events (organize a play like in V Day for people who experienced sexual oppression and violence), podcast, documentaries?
Joining one’s voice to others who either lost a child or wants this nonsense to stop is important. It is the isolation of individual constructive powers that slows down evolution and gives advantage to destructive forces. It is from the interconnectedness within the resistance movement that we will find and potentiate power. The strength of the voice that says ENOUGH will be bigger than the sum of its individual whispering components.
A culture shift also needs to happen. Maybe citizens should consider creating a mission statement promoting peace and take it seriously, by affiliating with only gun-free or anti-gun groups, by boycotting organizations, corporations or stores where guns are sold etc. Moving out to a neighborhood or a state known to have a lower density of guns might help convey an important message. Banning movies that are glorifying, trivializing or simply depicting shootings is another way. While resisting the gun culture, we must at the same time create a counter-culture of peace and harmony. We should prioritize promoting kindness and literacy, so that children are educated early on, aware of the social problems and potential solutions, and empowered to make this world a better place. Contacting other countries with stricter gun laws (such as Canada) to get insights and maybe develop synergies might help.
When tragedy hits, and it will again until we change the situation by limiting access to guns, developing and using a self-care toolkit is necessary to heal before switching to “warrior of peace” mode. When encountering distressed people, in order to effectively support them, we should always ask them, “What would be most helpful? What do you need right this moment?” rather than imposing our own strategies. The survivors of the massacre can be offered psychological first aid (facilitating contact with support network and attendance to basic needs such as food and shelter, without forcing debriefing). Offering such support to grieving families and school staff is also a priority. Examples of self-care activities include: ensuring good sleep, healthy diet, organizing a healing circle, talking to a friend, going on a walk, mediating, using artistic self-expression, doing something positive and supportive for a child or adult in need (helping a neighbor with homework, volunteering at a hospital). For mental health professionals, there is a heightened risk of secondary traumatization as they hear horrific stories. Self-care must become second nature. There are wonderful resources from Dr. Richard Mollica for healers:
Harvard Pocket Card Self Care – English.pdf
HTP 10 Point Self-Care Toolkit 2020 (3).pdf
And my most important resolution couldn’t be better stated than by Dr. Mollica in one of his other toolkits (developed to maintain wellness in health professionals in the context of the pandemic –see link below): “Restore human dignity through kindness and compassion.” This is the only way we can break the cycle of violence. Not by more violence, no matter how hurt we may feel, but by reversing the cycle and creating a new one: a spiral of kindness and peace.