By: Sharon Aron Baron
A former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student and doctoral candidate at CUNY Graduate Center wants to let others struggling with the aftermath of the school massacre to know they are not alone and there are ways of coping with it.
As well as an adjunct professor in social work at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, 1993 MSD graduate Claire McCue helps professionals working with clients who have experienced trauma.
McCue said that a fellow MSD graduate recently posted on an alumni Facebook group that she was struggling with what happened at the school and it has affected her on a regular basis along with many residents in the Cities of Parkland and Coral Springs. As one of her areas of research and clinical practice, McCue shares her experiences with vicarious trauma, which is the name for this type of struggle. She said that for many people, what happened in Parkland is deeply personal.
“We called Coral Springs and Parkland home, made lifelong friends in these cities that was host to an attack on one of the safest places we knew.”
She said that the community members can relate to the students who were attacked on many levels, and are going to grieve, because they are a part of us, and that’s perfectly normal and perfectly understandable.
But, she added, this can be more than grief. Acts of terror, like a mass-shooting, can devastate our sense of safety. Although random acts of terror are mostly rare; they are beyond horrific. And, it can feel like they happen all the time so this can impact us in a very deep way.
Being involved in trauma, hearing about trauma, has an impact on our neurological and endocrine systems. It has been encoded deeply in our memories in a way that’s often difficult to escape from for many.”
McCue said that an event like the one that happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas shatters our assumptions about the world. Specifically, they challenge the assumptions that we all have and have grown up believing. She gives examples of some of these assumptions: The world is safe and predictable; the world is just and meaningful and good people experience good outcomes; the world is benevolent and people are inherently good. On some level, these assumptions are not necessarily true, but we do have them and they can be psychologically healthy and adaptive.
McCue said that the assumption of safety protects us from living with a daily fear that an act of random violence, which could lead to death, can occur. This way we can live our lives, focus on our work, date, begin relationships, marry, raise families, provide care for our loved ones, and enjoy opportunities that present to us in our life. Plus, we have the assumption of predictability and this helps us feel protected by being responsible and making wise and discerning decisions, and not taking unnecessary risks.
She adds that going to school should not be a risk. Showing up to work as a teacher is responsible. It should not be a risk. And, the assumption of a just world helps us feel protected by being a good person.
“We in our communities believe that the reward for doing the right thing is safety and the chance to build a happy and successful life,” said McCue. “This assumption helps us to have enough trust to meet new people, start new relationships, forgive others, and function in a community where we depend on others in business or in tasks of daily life.”
So, then how do individuals deal with the fact that the world isn’t a safe place?
There is no perfect answer she said.
From McCue’s work with individuals who are traumatized vicariously and from her research to date, she believes that when it comes to trauma, the impact of being so close to an event like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas is held neurologically and physiologically inside of one’s body.
“Being involved in trauma, hearing about trauma, has an impact on our neurological and endocrine systems. It has been encoded deeply in our memories in a way that’s often difficult to escape from for many.”
She said some people may have typical responses such as heightened stress, irritability and sadness. For others vicariously affected, there is also a risk for developing symptoms akin to PTSD, but in a much less intense way. Some examples of symptoms are intrusive thoughts, chronic fatigue, sadness, anger, poor concentration, second guessing, detachment, emotional exhaustion, fearfulness, shame and physical illness.
McCue’s research has focused primarily, on mental health professionals, health care workers and other helping professions, but she said some of the same symptoms can emerge for those outside of these professions who are deeply connected to a traumatic event.
There is hope for those who are feeling symptoms. Some of these strategies may help individuals get back to their regular way of living:
Acknowledge your feelings about the event: Don’t try to just shove your feelings down because that just doesn’t work long-term. It is important to take the time you need to connect with your feelings, especially anger, fear, or sadness. Allow yourself to feel it in your body and understand that these feelings are normal reactions to a trauma—even one experienced vicariously.
Do something active and engaging to cope: Taking action to soothe your feelings, express your anger, or reaching out to others who may feel the same can be very helpful. Talk to other people, find a worthy fundraiser to donate money, attend a meeting to discuss school safety or simply write down your thoughts and feelings. Think about volunteering for a cause related to preventing this type of gun violence. Or even consider advocating for a specific program or law or something that can make you feel like you are doing something productive to finding solutions to senseless violence.
McCue tells her clients to focus on the good that they can do in the world and the things that make their lives more meaningful.
“You can’t stop all the bad things in the world but you can live by your values, speak up against injustice, and be a positive influence in your family and community.”
And, the other major suggestion she makes is to limit exposure to media on the event. Today we have the internet and social media providing 24/7 immediate access to firsthand accounts and visuals, real-time coverage, and audio and video recordings. Research on the effects of indirect exposure to social media and internet coverage of traumatic events is still in its beginning stages, but I believe what some studies are starting to show – media can increase PTSD-like symptoms when someone is viewing images and stories about a traumatic event.
Continue to care for yourself and be aware of what you need while you care for others that are so close to you and are in need.
“Vicarious trauma happens because you care – because you empathize with people who are hurting and because you feel committed or responsible to help,” she said.
Claire T. McCue, MSW, MPhil, is a forensic social worker with 21 years experience and a professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. A frequent lecturer on gender based violence and trauma. A resident of Brooklyn, NY, McCue is completing her doctoral studies in social welfare with the specialization in vicarious trauma and vicarious post-traumatic growth.