Trigger warning: Please read with caution.
I remember exactly where I was in 1995 when I heard how a mother had strapped her two very young children into their car seats and watched as the car rolled into a lake in South Carolina.
I couldn’t get their murders off my mind. Had she been psychotic with commanding murderous voices that kidnapped her mind? How could she turn off an entire aspect of her being? Or had feelings of maternal protectiveness never existed in the first place?
I found myself unable to stop crying — until I realized why. My son was 2.
You may find yourself there now. The killings in Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, N.Y.; and California tragically stand as more testament to the destructiveness and horror that one human can create. The reason you believe they happened or how they could’ve been prevented will vary dependent on your beliefs and values.
But there are two psychological responses you may be experiencing: secondary trauma and psychic numbing.
Secondary trauma occurs when you hear or watch a trauma occurring, even when that trauma doesn’t happen directly to you, as in more classic PTSD. Both first and secondary responders can be dramatically affected and develop stress disorders that can lead to minds being haunted by images of violence. But if you’ve been devouring news reports, or if, like me in 1995, the loss hits too close to home, you can also develop depression and heightened anxiety.
Yet, you may also find yourself numb. The New York Times recently featured an article describing a paradoxical phenomenon called “psychic numbing,” which Dr. Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon has intensely researched.
“When we come across data and numbers, the emotional part of our brain shuts off, Dr. Slovic said — we become more detached from the information, making us care about it less.”
So, what can you do to stay present but stable?
- Do something you have control over, even if it seems not to have anything to do with the actual tragedy.
- Calm yourself by creating order. Turn to your faith or familiar ritual that can act to center you.
- Talk to your children. Let them talk about their feelings. Guide them to focus on something they can do as an act of kindness. Remind them of their principal and teachers caring for them and how you are there to keep them safe.
- Journal. Talk with friends or a therapist about your feelings. Tune in to those emotions. But couple that expression with a plan.
- Ask for help if you need it. Realize how you’re being affected. Monitor your inner dialogue so that it’s productive rather than destructive.
- Use your anger or anguish not as a weapon but as motivation. Realize that it’s better to respond than to react.
Let’s talk for a moment about the role of mental illness in mass shootings.
This is being hotly and (at times) irrationally debated as its priority in the “why.” Dr. Allyson Young points out: “It’s important to recognize… that when we talk about mental health, it’s not just the absence of mental illness. The term ‘mental health’ describes an overall well-being in which someone does not have mental distress, and they feel generally well, both physically and mentally”.
People who murder are obviously not mentally well.
Yet hatred is not a mental illness. Mental illness could — or could not — be present. Hatred can be taught, modeled, absorbed, and even fostered. It can dehumanize its targets.
Because hatred alone can justify. And hatred can kill.
Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a private practice psychologist in Fayetteville. The opinions expressed are those of the author.