Making Meaning from the Collective Trauma of Public Violence

I was in the midst of writing a 2011 goals and intentions post this past weekend, when the news from Arizona hit. Tucson is a special place to me, ever since my doctoral internship year spent at the University of Arizona’s Health Sciences Center. For the next two days that was about all I could focus on. Perhaps I’ll get back to that original post, but New Year’s goals seemed trivial in light of this tragedy first. Then again, maybe not.

It has taken me this long to formulate my thoughts, to put words to my feelings and reactions. I knew immediately what I did not want to write. I did not want to add my voice to the arm-chair speculations, the many quick to “diagnose” someone they had never met based on bits of reported information or disjointed and confusing YouTube videos. Let’s remember, fellow mental health professionals, that it is unethical  to “diagnose” someone we have not assessed and have no professional relationship with.

When random, public violence occurs like this,  we all can feel vicariously traumatized. We are shocked, horrified, grief-stricken and angry. We look for someone to blame. We look for reasons, answers to the unanswerable “whys” of human-on-human violence.

Why do we do that? Why do we speculate about the motives, the mental state, the triggering influences of a heinous act like this? I suspect it is about our desire for control, our need to restore sense and meaning when it has been torn asunder.

How easy it is to feel angry at those we see as responsible, both the shooter and those we may see as inciting this sort of violence. Remember, violence comes in the form of words too. Anger in the face of injustice makes sense. But anger in the form of public expressions of hatred and personal attacks adds more fuel to the fire.

If we believe that words have power, as I do, let’s also reflect on another word getting bandied about quite a bit: “Crazy” .  As we are thinking about the impact of words, let us remember that calling someone “crazy” or “a nut job”  rather than “a person who is mentally ill” contributes to the stigmatization of mental health issues.

We also need to keep in mind that knowing that someone is mentally ill does not tell us anything about their propensity for violence. Check out Oxford psychiatrist Seena Fazel‘s epidemiological research on mental illness and violence here and review of the findings in this article at Slate by Vaughan Bell:

A 2009 analysis of nearly 20,000 individuals concluded that increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of whether the person had schizophrenia. Two similar analyses on bipolar patients showed, along similar lines, that the risk of violent crime is fractionally increased by the illness, while it goes up substantially among those who are dependent on intoxicating substances. In other words, it’s likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.

We hold onto this myth that mental illness equals and explains violence to try to help us make sense of the senseless, to try to regain our illusion of control. The reality is we are not good predictors of this sort of human violence. Period.

So how do we make sense of this sort of horrific event? How do we pick up the pieces and move forward? And can we do so in a way that contributes something, in a way that enriches us rather than keeps us stuck in a place of despair or retaliatory anger?

Don’t get me wrong: there is a place and time for righteous anger. I have felt plenty angry in the aftermath of this tragedy. I also believe there then comes a time for living what we want to see more of in the world. Do you want peace? Empathy for each other? Civil discourse? How can you start to live that yourself rather than decrying the lack of it in others?
Here are my intentions in the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson:

  • I want to move forward being more mindful than ever of the impact of words. I want to stay aware of how I talk about events and people, to remove any language of violence, of hate, of stigmatization. I plan to call for the same from others around me: be they friends, colleagues or elected officials.
  • I further intend to recommit myself to the work of decreasing the stigmatization of mental health issues. While it is true that  we do not have the power to force treatment on someone, we do have the power to make community-based treatment options more readily available and to decrease barriers to care by continuing to work on destigmatizing mental illness. Checking our language and challenging myths and misconceptions are stigma decreasing actions we all can take.
  • I also intend to not allow myself to stay stuck in the horror, anger or despair.  I can focus beyond all of that to examples of hope and goodness that emerge in times of human crisis. One possibly very ill person committed horrible acts. Many, many others responded with courage and kindness, doing the right thing automatically for those around them even at great risk to themselves. I find those stories to be profoundly moving and a powerful reminder that we can all choose to do the same.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

This entry was posted in Mental Health, Psychologist, Trauma, Violence and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Making Meaning from the Collective Trauma of Public Violence

  1. Julie says:

    Beautifully written, thank you. As someone who struggles with the stigma, I am unfortunately reminded all too often while watching the news stories of why I do not openly disclose my mental illness. The tragedy of that is – I should. I’m not helping the community by keeping it to myself. Also as a victim of gun violence, another issue arises in the gun culture of America. A statistic that I came across recently noted that “In one year, guns murdered 17 people in Finland, 35 in Australia, 39 in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, … 200 in Canada, and 9,484 in US”. The way I see it, this statistic has nothing to do with one’s mental health but how one views their role in society – a need for power perhaps.

    • Thanks for your comment Julie.

      I respect that each person gets to make their own decisions about when or if to “come out” about mental health issues…because their still can be serious repercussions!

      There are more than enough facts to indicate to me that countries with better gun control laws have a lot less gun related violence and deaths.

  2. People murder people, not guns. Guns, knives, etc. are just tools that are used.

    Dr. Young, thank you for so eloquently stating this post. I agree with you and will be more effective at monitoring my own words and thoughts. I tweeted this post and also put it on my Facebook page.

  3. Thanks for passing it on, Patricia.

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