Coping With The Parkland Shooting!

An Electronic Mental Health Newsletter from Joel I. Kimmel, Ph.D., P.A. & Associates
Volume 13, Number 2

Because of the horrific tragedy that happened in Parkland just six days ago, we are foregoing our usual format. This e-Letter is dedicated to the innocent seventeen who perished unexpectedly and without reason.

Coping with the Parkland Shooting!

Even though you’re far away, you’re on my mind
Ooo ooo ooo, wishing you were here…— Chicago

I have been practicing for forty years as a psychologist in this community. I have seen thousands of patients with all kinds of problems. I have worked in drug rehabs and child protection teams. I have been trained in crisis intervention and have treated people who have been victims of bank robberies and employee deaths. But never have I experienced anything so disruptive to the lives of people and the community as this shooting. This disaster is personal not only to me but to all who live here, grew up here, work here, or know others here.

Traumas such as this school shooting are extremely high intensity events that occur infrequently. But they do occur and when they do, they overcome our normal ability to cope and our usual defense mechanisms. We feel powerless, scared, and angry. We try to make sense out of something that makes no sense and we are left numb and in disbelief.

It has only been six days, yet it feels like months. Our community has been changed forever and normal will never return. Our sense of safety is gone along with Parkland’s innocence. The cruelty of our world has crashed down on this community, our community, leaving huge gaping scars.

Everyone here has been affected. This is a very tight community where everyone knows someone who knows someone affected by this tragedy. We are all familiar with the schools, the restaurants, the streets, the sport leagues, the parks, and the houses of worship. Parkland was a safe and great place to grow up. Community leaders have worked hard to insure a terrific quality of life.

But now, there are seventeen funerals to attend. Teenagers are left with horrible memories of what they saw and experienced. Some fear for their safety and are anxious about how they can return to school. They jump at sounds and have difficulty eating and sleeping. They band together because their friends share this catastrophe and understand what it is like to be terrified. They are angry that their lives could forever be changed so easily. They are angry that they were not protected by those who could have and by those who should have. They are angry that there were signs of potential disaster but the systems failed. They are angry about easy access to guns and that mental illness is not taken seriously enough. These teenagers are educated, smart, affluent, and motivated. They will not go quietly into the night. Change is coming and they will be the instruments of change.

Their parents and families are also angry. Thousands of questions that have no answers have been asked. How could this have happened here ripples across the community. Parents are also banding together because they have this tragedy in common. They are angry because they trusted society to protect their children who were actually in the right place at the right time. But society failed them. The systems of protection did not work. Now they are left heartbroken and trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Their community has been damaged and now Parkland will forever be known for having one of the worst school shootings in American history.

Common reactions to such intense events include PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks, phobic reactions, and depression. The closer the person was to the event, the greater the emotional impact and the possibility of having survivor guilt. Re-experiencing the event, having nightmares and flashbacks, feeling scared, isolating, being hypervigilant, and avoiding anything that reminds them of the trauma are common and normal reactions.

It will take a lot of time for a new normal to develop for each of us and for Parkland. Things cannot just go back to the way they were as if nothing happened. There must be change for the better. The lives of the seventeen must have some meaning so that they have not died in vain. Honoring their memory by taking social action, making contributions, changing gun laws, incorporating what was important to them into your lives, and other means of remembering can promote healing.

Traumas need to be neutralized and overcome. The tragic events will never be forgotten and will become a part of each person’s life. A sense of safety needs to be reestablished and anger expressed appropriately. New routines need to be established to decrease anxiety and give some certainty to lives in emotional upheaval. Information also needs to be provided about returning to school, how to contribute to memorials, and other community activities. Feelings of guilt, depression, loss, and anxiety might best be handled with a trained therapist.

There are actions you can take as a parent for your children and for yourself,

  • Talk and more importantly listen to your children. This can help them feel safe and supported. Even if you may not agree with then, listen as this will validate them and that is what they need. Let them know that you are also coping with this tragedy and believe that you will all get through it. Give them a hug as sometimes this is more important than words.
  • Reassure them that their home is safe and secure. Engage in family activities but also let them have their space when they need it. Do not let them isolate and check in with them periodically.
  • Watch for signs of anxiety, anger, grief, shock, behavior change, trouble sleeping and eating, and loss of interest in school and other activities. Encourage them to journal their feelings or talk about them. Ask them to see a therapist depending on the intensity of these feelings and their closeness to the shooting.
  • Limit the amount of time spent watching the news and social media. Constant exposure to this information can actually increase the effects of the trauma and prevent neutralizing the emotions.
  • Be patient with yourself and others. Allow time to pass to process the event.
  • Be aware of how you handle your own feelings about this tragedy. Make sure that you take breaks to process your own intense feelings and see your own therapist. Recognize that you are a model to your children and they will watch you. Eat healthy and try to get enough rest.
  • Remember that grieving takes a long time so don’t rush it or ignore it. Give yourself time to feel your feelings and to recover. There may be many ups and downs so don’t be surprised if you feel like you are getting over it and then find yourself feeling depressed.

With time and support, a new normal will develop. We will be changed. Hopefully we can take this event and, in some way, use it to make us stronger and better people. As the community comes together, perhaps we will become more understanding, respectful, courteous, tolerant, and more caring to our fellow neighbors. Nobody here has escaped this tragedy and together, we can become better people and a stronger community.
Perhaps this can be the legacy of the Stoneman Douglas tragedy.

The information provided in this electronic newsletter is not a substitute for professional treatment. It is the opinions of the writers and is provided solely for educational purposes. For mental health care, seek a qualified professional.

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If you find this information interesting or helpful, please forward this E-Letter to your contacts and friends. Copyright © 2018 by Joel I. Kimmel, Ph.D. P.A. and Associates.