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After 5 years, we’re still processing the Sandy Hook tragedy

December 13, 2017

December 14 marks the fifth year anniversary of the tragic mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The perpetrator was a 20 year old male with an apparent history of mental illness who fatally shot 20 children, six adults and himself.

Given the day’s political news, especially about sexual abuse and harassment in our society, coupled with the recent election of Doug Jones in Alabama, it would be easy to overlook this anniversary. We in mental healthcare should try to make sure that doesn’t happen.

We know that significant anniversaries of any life event, positive or not, have strong psychological resonance. It triggers the remembrance of emotionally powerful events, whether birthdays or deaths, victories or defeats. When the marked year has particular resonance—whether one, five, 10, 100, 1,000, or whatever milestone a particular culture values—the emotional reaction is likely to be even stronger.

When the major anniversary is associated with tragedy, there are no celebrations of those harmed in one way or another by the tragedy. Rather, we expect the opposite: mourning. Not surprisingly, those most affected by the original losses will tend to experience the greatest sadness and other emotional reactions. 

Trauma is difficult to process

But we in mental healthcare can appreciate that there can be more than mourning, due to the life course of posttraumatic reactions. Trauma is often difficult to process adequately at the time of the event. It can be too overwhelming psychologically.

That is a reason why posttraumatic stress disorder and its variations can emerge later, even much, much later. Often, that later emergence requires a trigger occurring that is connected to the original trauma—even today’s media coverage in the case of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Or, the trigger can be a new trauma that psychologically resembles the prior one. At the very least, it is a painful reminder of the past trauma.

As a society, we also know that we pay the greatest attention to a major societal trauma like mass murder right after the event. Many react heroically and disaster-psychiatry second responders rush in to help. Then, it seems to disappear from media attention and follow-up until some special anniversary occurs.

Help our patients

This knowledge presents an opportunity for us to help our patients and society. Certainly, we will have patients that have a personal resonance of one kind or another to Newtown, whether that be a death of a child in the family or exposure to gun violence. Since the perpetrator of the Newtown shooting was reported to be mentally ill, the stigma of being mentally ill, coupled with the erroneous expectation that the mentally ill will be more violent, will be re-invoked. For our patients, we should look over our caseloads in order to anticipate such connections and prepare to react to them therapeutically.

For our local communities and general society, we can provide valuable education on the psychological impact of anniversaries, as well as the long-term course of trauma and PTSD. We should remind all that the long-term impact is not always negative, but also that post-traumatic psychological growth can occur with enough ongoing emotional support and therapeutic resources. We can also add our expertise on the psychological aspects of mass murderers and the major risk factors, such as inadequate mental healthcare resources and intervention, the availability of guns and religiously connected extremism.

At a minimum, take a collective minute or more on December 14 to mourn and respect the losses at Newtown.

For me, I’m going to pull out one of my favorite old blues records and remember what the writer Ralph Ellison wrote about blues songs in "Living with Music: Jazz Writings:"

“. . . an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it."
 

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