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 the car roll into a lake in South Carolina.
I couldn’t forget their murders. Had she been psychotic with murderous authoritative voices that had kidnapped her mind? How could she turn off an entire aspect of her being? Or had feelings of maternal protection never existed in the first place?
I found myself unable to stop crying, until I understood why. My own son was two years old.
You can find yourself there now. The murders in Uvalde, Buffalo and California are tragic testaments to the destructiveness and horror that a single human being can create. Why you think they happened or how they could have been avoided will depend on your beliefs and values.
But there are two psychological reactions you may experience: secondary trauma and psychic numbness.
Secondary trauma occurs when you hear or watch trauma happen, even when that trauma doesn’t happen to you directly, as with more classic PTSD. First responders and secondary responders can be significantly affected and can develop stress disorders which can lead to minds being haunted by images of violence. But if you’ve devoured the news or if, like me in 1995, loss hits too close to home, you may also develop depression and heightened anxiety.
Yet, you may also find yourself numb. The New York Times recently published an article describing a paradoxical phenomenon called “psychic numbness” that Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon has researched extensively. “When we encounter data and numbers, the emotional part of our brain shuts down,” Slovic said. “We become more detached from information, which makes us care less about it.”
What can you do to stay present but steady?
- Do something you control, even if it seems to have nothing to do with the actual tragedy.
- Calm down by creating order. Turn to your familiar faith or ritual that can work to center you.
- Talk to your children. Remind them of their own principal and the teachers looking after them, how you and they are there to keep them safe. Let them talk about their own feelings. Guide them to focus on something they can do out of kindness.
- Log. Talk to friends or a therapist about your own feelings. Tune into those emotions. But associate this expression with a plan.
- Ask for help if you need it. Realize how affected you are. Monitor your own inner dialogue so that it is productive rather than destructive.
- Use your anger or anxiety not as a weapon, but as motivation. Know that it is better to respond than to react.
Let’s talk for a moment about the role of mental illness in mass shootings, which is the subject of heated and (sometimes) irrational debates as to its priority in the “why”. People who kill are obviously not mentally well. And there could be deep-seated characterological issues, as in the rubric of antisocial personality disorder. Yet hate itself is not a mental illness. Hatred can be taught, molded, absorbed, even nurtured. He can dehumanize his targets. Mental illness may or may not be present.
Because hatred alone can justify. And hate can kill.