How to recover mentally and emotionally after an act of mass violence

For emergency responders, trauma from an act of mass violence can create a cyclical pattern of negative thinking

This article is from the International Public Safety Association’s May 2018 release of the "Acts of Mass Violence: Public Safety Response and Recovery" eBook.

By Amy Morgan, MSC, Executive Training Director at Academy Hour and IPSA Mental Health Committee Member

If you were attacked and bitten violently by a dog when you were a kid, you would most likely have an adverse reaction throughout adulthood every time you see a similar dog. At a minimum, you would feel a heightened sense of caution and awareness. Any disturbing, traumatic or high-risk event that we are a part of becomes a factor in how we see the world around us. An act of mass casualty violence is this type of event, but on a much larger scale, and with the added component of the attack being with a person’s purposeful intention to frighten, hurt and kill other people.

Because most people do not think like the individuals who commit acts of mass violence, it is difficult for us to understand the why behind their action. It is common for events like these to make us question things and people around us. The unknown and questioning often leads to the development of fear and anxiety. We start to question the safety of our workplace or school, or even regular outings like a trip to a mall, grocery store, movie theater or an evening at a concert. With this insecurity and fear, we wrap ourselves in negative emotion and thought. We begin to discuss the darker sides of people in general, the world as we see it changing for the worst and the possibilities of more violent and unpredictable events happening around us or to us.

A new incident may trigger memories and reactions from a previous incident.
A new incident may trigger memories and reactions from a previous incident. (Photo/Pixabay)

Negative thinking after experiencing trauma

For emergency responders, trauma from an act of mass violence can create a cyclical pattern of negative thinking. An up-close view of mass violence, with its injuries and fatalities, and all the accompanying sounds, sights and smells, may create a new trauma. There is the direct impact of the trauma and the incident itself – being right in the middle of it, participating in the response action, interacting with injured survivors, imagining all that happened prior to responder arrival. An act of mass violence is traumatic, and it will create predictable post-trauma responses and reactions.

A new incident may trigger memories and reactions from a previous incident. If an emergency responder had previous trauma, a post-traumatic response could reappear. In this scenario, the emergency responder is not only dealing with the disturbing images of this new event, but he or she is also mentally and emotionally reliving a previous event.

Understanding your personal triggers

Triggers could be things like similar weather, sounds of sirens or of voices crying or yelling or the smell of fire. Anything that either consciously or subconsciously reminds the responder of a previous traumatic incident can make him or her feel as if they are right back there again. As with any difficult event in life, getting immediate help like counseling, education and building a strong, positive support network, will make the difference in speed and effectiveness of recovery. Strength and resilience comes in many forms – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual – and a responder who uses available resources to rebuild that strength, and get back to a healthy state of being, will be better equipped and prepared to manage the next critical incident.

After a traumatic event – like an act of mass violence, it is critically important talk. Talk to a loved one, to friends, to peers and coworkers who are going through the same thing. Do not isolate yourself and keep everything inside. And make sure those you are talking to also use their own resources – it is difficult to be the spouse of a responder, and hear all the danger and risk stories, and not take that in and begin to worry and feel anxiety. Both members of this team need to use resources to keep that strength and resilience at its best.

Acknowledge the trauma

Admit that the incident was disturbing, difficult and even painful. Trying to act like something was not bothersome to you may make you feel like you are protecting yourself from criticism, but the honesty and openness to find resources will protect you far more and for much longer.

Do not over-react, but instead be purposeful and strategic, with a well-researched plan. After something goes wrong, we often find ourselves jumping in to implement changes to prevent something from happening again. Emergency responders need to keep in mind that there are people who are unstable and are intent on doing harm to other people. You need to acknowledge that you cannot resolve the world’s problems all by yourself – but do your part, get involved and know that little by little you can make a difference. Awareness is excellent. Problem-solving is needed. 

Be compassionate. Do not let the negativity and cynicism bring you down, but instead use this type of incident to remind yourself that the world needs more good, more positive and more compassion. If anything positive can come from an act of mass violence, it should be that it serves as a reminder to us all that we are all one, that we need each other and that by building each other up we will go much further than by tearing each other down.

Violence is never easy to watch or to clearly understand, and it is traumatic to experience it from many perspectives. Use resources to keep yourself healthy and resilient. Do not let evil bring down your own outlook on the world. Focus on the good that is done every day in the world, by many people. Look out for others, be good to yourself, practice compassion and empathy, and go out there and keep making a difference. 

About the author
Ms. Morgan is the founder and Executive Training Director of Academy Hour, a training provider offering mental health & leadership courses to emergency response personnel. She holds a Master's degree in Counseling, and a Bachelor's of Science degree in Behavioral Sciences. She serves as a member of the International Public Safety Association's Mental Health Committee, and as a subject matter expert and presenter of leadership & mental health training sessions for the International Public Safety Association, IADLEST (First Forward) and the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training in Oklahoma.

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