After three more major shootings, a nation copes with collective trauma

Photo for The Washington Post by Matthew Staver
People gather at a vigil at All Souls Unitarian Church in Colorado Springs on Nov. 20, after a shooting the night before at Club Q.

As Americans grapple with three major shootings in less than two weeks, many are expressing a combination of fear, anger and resignation that gun violence now has become part of normal life in the United States.

“There’s this feeling that this is just part of the collective experience. It’s scary that it’s becoming normal,” said Kayla M. Johnson, a licensed psychologist in Tomball, Texas. “It happens and we say, ‘Oh, man. What a shame,’ and two weeks go by and people don’t talk about it anymore, and then it happens again.”

“I had a client just tell me, ‘You know, I’m kind of desensitized to this,'” said Steve Alexander Jr., a licensed mental health counselor in Brooklyn. “He said, ‘I don’t know if it’s a bad thing or a good thing.'”

Michelle Slater, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Jacksonville, Fla., said that in recent years, her clients have been expressing a sense of helplessness and powerlessness.

“It’s just one more thing for them to feel that this system isn’t working – that now we’re not safe in our grocery stores or our churches,” she said. “Then on the flip side, I see a lot of disengagement from it. How many gun shootings can we grieve in one week? People are too tired to care.”

The scourge of gun violence is likely to be a topic of conversation at many holiday tables this Thanksgiving. The recent incidents began with the fatal shooting of three football players at the University of Virginia, allegedly by a fellow student. Then a gunman opened fire in Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, killing five. More recently, police say a Walmart employee opened fire on his co-workers, killing six and injuring six more.

While some dinner guests may feel that gun violence is the wrong thing to discuss at a celebratory meal, talking about the tragedies with family and friends is a good coping strategy, Johnson said.

“I don’t care if it’s a holiday or it brings down the mood,” she said. “People need to share that they’re missing their loved one or they’re angry with the state of the world. The only thing we can do is validate the experience people are having in this moment. It’s real fear and real grief that needs to be witnessed and seen and shared.”

At the same time, if the conversation feels overwhelming, it’s also okay to walk away, said Arron Muller, a licensed clinical social worker in Valley Stream, N.Y. “If you need to step away for a minute and go to another room, feel encouraged to do so,” he said.

One reason recent violent events are having a powerful impact on many people’s mental health is that they happened in spaces where people typically feel safe, said Pooja Sharma, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, Calif.

The shootings happened at “a club where people go for connection and a night out, and a store where people go to work and shop before the holidays,” Sharma said. “When our safe place becomes the place of trauma, we as a society cannot rely on these places to provide safety, resulting in unpredictably, distress and confusion.”

Therapists note that violent events can be traumatic even for those who are not directly affected by them, particularly for people who have experienced past trauma. And many people haven’t had time to process recent events, and may begin to do so over the holiday break.

Elizabeth Rieger, a licensed social worker in Beavercreek, Ohio, said one of her LGBTQ clients is dealing with trauma after the Club Q shooting.

“She is struggling with the fact that she was very marginalized in her own family for being LGBTQ+ and has never been allowed to live her true authentic life,” Rieger said. “Hearing about what happened at Club Q feels even more traumatic for her because of her life experience.”

Black therapists say they have developed unfortunate expertise in counseling people of color who often don’t feel safe in their communities or public spaces because of police brutality, racism and microaggressions in the workplace.

Muller, who specializes in Black men’s mental health and wellness, said compounded trauma disproportionately affects people of color – not only during national tragedies, but in daily life. “There’s always this hypervigilance, this hyperawareness where you may not be as present, or you may just have this persistent heaviness,” he said.

Lakeasha Sullivan, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Atlanta, said it is important for people to feel emotions such as despair.

“On the other side of despair is justifiable anger and rage at the situation. These are the emotions not to turn off because we can use them constructively,” she said. “Using anger in this way helps us to continue to push for change and helps us to enforce boundaries around how we allow ourselves and others to be treated. And that is the most powerful way to cope with situations of this magnitude.”

The key, experts say, is not to let those emotions become destructive.

“Allow yourself to feel, but don’t allow yourself to live there. Develop a plan of action to manage these emotions,” Muller said.

Several experts said it’s a good idea to take breaks from social media and the news during traumatic events. Muller said distractions like going to a museum or reading a book can help. Sharma suggested exercise, cooking, gardening and listening to music. Prayer, for those who are religious, as well as meditation and seeking support from those close to you can all help.

“If you’re thinking about something that’s going on in the world and you can’t get that thought out of your head, try to redirect yourself,” Rieger said. “Take a walk. Reach out to people. Pick up a book that will help redirect you or watch a TV series that will redirect your mind from thinking about what you heard on the news this morning.”

A common emotion after tragic events is a sense of powerlessness, experts say. Focusing on things where you have some control can help. Planning for emergencies, noting where to find emergency exits, thinking about how you might protect yourself in unsafe situations are all ways to cope with feeling powerless, Johnson said.

“Creating some sense of control over a situation, knowing where the exits are, that gives some sense of control,” she said.

Another way to feel in control is to focus your energy on volunteerism and helping your community, Slater said.

“The antidote is altruism,” she said. “Maybe we can’t stop gun violence across the whole country, but what can we do in our community to build people up, to give back, to be a part of something that feels good?”