Coping with the Newtown Tragedy: Strategies for Self-Care in the Wake of School Shooting

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The Newtown, Connecticut shooting has had repercussions far beyond the local community--it has affected people across the nation and even the world. San Francisco psychotherapist Michael Halyard provides recommendations for self-care and coping with the tragedy.

Watching nonstop television coverage of the tragedy can give a person the impression that nowhere is safe and that everyone is in extreme danger, but in reality a person is far more likely to get hit by lightening than fall victim to a mass shooting.

Reverberations of the recent Sandy Hook Elementary shooting are not just being felt in Newtown, Connecticut. Across the country, people with no personal connections to the tragedy are experiencing deep feelings of sadness and loss.

This sadness is made worse as people see images of the victims and learn more about their lives. These feelings are a sharp contrast to the feelings of joy that folks are supposed to be feeling this time of year.

“People have been glued to their televisions from the beginning, witnessing every horrific detail as it emerges, and watching the funeral processions and grieving families,” says San Francisco therapist Michael Halyard.

Halyard is a San Francisco psychotherapist and can be found on the websites
http://www.sftherapy.com/ and http://www.sanfrancisco-psychotherapy.com.

What makes this tragedy different than past mass shootings is the ages of the 20 children who were killed--they were all first graders, just six and seven years old. Also disturbing is the news that the six adults who were killed--teachers, a principle and a school psychologist--died trying to save the children’s lives. All of this is in the context of an elementary school in a small idyllic town, a place that would normally be considered extremely safe. If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere.

“Although the reaction to the incident will vary from person to person, many people may experience secondary trauma-- trauma that is vicarious and not experienced directly, but trauma nonetheless. Some people put themselves in the shoes of the victims, imagining what they went through, feeling intense emotions, and knowing that they died,” adds Halyard.

For many, the images of the deceased children and grieving families are a memory now etched into their minds. And that witnessing of the tragedy affects people's sense of safety--their own sense of safety and the safety of their loved ones. People think of their own children, grandchildren, or other loved ones and imagine how hard it would be if this were to happen to them.

Halyard says while it is inevitable that people are going to be impacted by the tragedy, it’s important for people to focus on self-care by giving themselves a reality check, keeping things in perspective, maintaining hope, and taking action so they feel like they're doing something to make things better.

“Watching nonstop television coverage of the tragedy can give a person the impression that nowhere is safe and that everyone is in extreme danger, but in reality a person is far more likely to get hit by lightening than fall victim to a mass shooting. Schools are generally safe places for children--but the country obviously need to take steps to make schools and society in general safer,” argues Halyard.

“People need to know what their limits are--if watching news coverage of the event is making a person anxious and depressed, then they should turn off the news. While it is natural to be affected by such a national tragedy, it’s also important to not dwell on the tragedy to the point where it interferes with functioning,” says Halyard.

Halyard says that taking some action is an excellent way to cope with feelings of helplessness. One way to take action is to do something for the victims, like participating in a vigil, sending condolence cards or flowers to the school, or just saying a prayer for the victims and their families. Another way to take action is to fight for tougher gun control laws and for a more accessible and comprehensive mental health system, by doing things like joining the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence or by writing letters to your Congressional representatives.

“The good news is that national leaders have a new willingness to make changes to gun laws and our mental health system which should finally reduce the frequency of mass shootings. Mental health treatment should be at least as accessible as deadly weapons,” adds Halyard.

“In talking to children about the tragedy, parents should make sure they are providing them with age-appropriate information--often parents give children more information than they can handle. It's also good to limit children's exposure to television, radio, or Internet news about the incident. It's important to reassure them that it is extremely unlikely that something like this would happen at their school, and emphasize that they are safe. Parents should be willing to answer all their questions, and give honest answers. It’s also important for parents to appear calm when discussing the tragedy, as children look to parents as a source of stability and security,” reveals Halyard.

“People are trying to make sense of a senseless situation--but mass killings don’t make sense. The question isn’t why, but what can the country do to prevent this from happening again. It’s up to adults to keep children safe,” adds Halyard.

Michael Halyard, MS, MFT is a San Francisco Marriage and Family Therapist and specializes in LGBT issues, depression, anxiety, addictions and couples counseling in his San Francisco private practice. He can be found
on the websites http://www.sftherapy.com/ and http://www.sanfrancisco-psychotherapy.com.

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