Wrapping our head around a mass shooting: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in victims and those that care for them
As a therapist, I am certainly not immune to emotional distress and trauma. The biggest mass shooting ever to occur in the United States just took place in my hometown of Orlando at a nightclub that I have been to before. My friends/colleagues in mental health work at the very hospital where over 53 injured victims were taken and they are frantically trying to comfort distraught shooting victims and the family members who are looking for their loved ones who may be injured or dead. All the first responders who attended the scene may have trouble getting the picture of what they saw in the nightclub out of their heads. My own brain is struggling with the enormity of it all as this huge loss to our community sinks in even though I was safely home in bed when the whole event occurred.
A big part of my practice these days involves using a type of therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in my work with clients who have survived a trauma of some kind like rape, plane crashes, car crashes, physical abuse or witnessing a violent death. These clients have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and their symptoms include:
-Experiencing intrusive flashbacks or re-experiencing the traumatic event
-Avoiding the place where the trauma occurred or anything that reminds them of the event
-Feeling hyper-aroused which means they have trouble sleeping and feel jumpy and/or irritable
-Dreaming about the traumatic event
-Having panic attacks
When I think about all the recent victims of this mass shooting, I know that many of the survivors will develop PTSD in the coming weeks and months. Family members and loved ones of those who perished may also develop PTSD as a result of having to identify their bodies of their loved ones and grieving their unexpected and tragic loss. Not everyone develops PTSD as a result of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event and we don’t really know why that is. But, what I do know is that many people with PTSD suffer in silence for a long time before they go to their physician or a mental health professional for diagnosis and help.
If you or a loved one begins experiencing symptoms of PTSD after a traumatic event or loss, please don’t ignore the symptoms or tell yourself that you just need to “suck it up and be strong.” PTSD is a very treatable condition and the impact that untreated PTSD has on one’s quality of life is profound.
My thoughts and prayers go out to all the victims of this senseless tragedy. I work with a lot of LGBT clients in my practice and I take comfort in knowing that our local LGBT community is very strong and that they will support each other as they heal.
Dana Nolan MS LMHC NCC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Altamonte Springs — Orlando
Survivor guilt (sometimes incorrectly termed as, survivor’s guilt) is a term often heard in the aftermath of wars, natural disasters, or some type of traumatic event. Unfortunately, this type of guilt occurs frequently and in a variety of situations. Victims of rape or assaults can believe that they are at fault or that they could have prevented the attack. Emergency workers who are unsuccessful in trying to save a life can feel guilt that they should have done things differently or acted more quickly. When a person commits suicide, the surviving loved ones usually believe that they should have done something differently to avert the suicide. The guilt that goes along with these traumatic events can lead to depression. Survivor guilt is also common in people who develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of a trauma.
Mental health counselors working with traumatized clients with depression or PTSD begin by helping them sort their emotions out. Often times, these clients don’t even recognize the presence of survivor guilt until it is pointed out by a skilled professional. The guilt that results from the traumatic event or events can leave clients feeling like the event was their fault, or that something could have been done to prevent it.
These feelings of guilt become associated with a perception of some type of wrongdoing. Most times, being able to talk about the experience and gain a better understanding of the trauma itself with a mental health therapist can help people move towards a healthier realization that the event was not their fault, or that there was nothing they could have done to prevent it.
Unresolved feelings of guilt can intensify and create deeper feelings of hopelessness, negative self-worth and self-esteem, which further exacerbate depression. This guilt can intensify during times of stress and can have a negative impact upon relationships and work.
The most difficult part of overcoming guilt after recognizing it, is letting go of the guilt and accepting that there was nothing they could have done differently to have changed the outcome. A counselor can aid in helping one recognize this fact and help the individual work through the issues of self-blame. It is not always an easy journey, and may raise some emotions that one may have spent many years avoiding, but talking about it with a licensed mental health counselor can be an important first step towards alleviating the guilt and depression that one may be suffering from.
It is important to remember that survivor guilt is not experienced by everyone or to the same levels of intensity. It will be different for each individual. However, when guilt and depression begin to interfere with the normal functions of daily life, it may be time to seek the assistance of a counselor.
It is important to find a counselor with whom you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings AND who has the necessary expertise to help you reach your goals. For that reason, we offer a free brief phone consultation to ensure that we are the right fit for you. If you are feeling depressed, have feelings of guilt, or would like to discuss some other issue(s), please don’t hesitate to contact Dana Nolan at 407-340-2474.
Our office is conveniently located in Altamonte Springs, just north of Orlando.