Columbine, Orlando, Las Vegas … now Parkland. And those, tragically, are just a few of the names etched in our memories. Predictably, after each horrifying incident, two topics dominate the national discourse: gun control and mental illness.
Research suggests that those with mental illness are no more likely to commit violent crimes than the general population. Unfortunately, the immediate focus on mental health is typically confined to the perpetrator, rather than the long-term healing needed by those directly affected and the broader community.
While this may be a legacy of stigma associated with mental health, it's a conversation that must change. It's appropriate to focus on the perpetrator, but not to the exclusion of caring for the survivors of these heinous crimes. That includes first responders and medical staff members. It is critically important that healthcare organizations and facilities are prepared to support survivors' mental health recovery as they transition back to everyday life.
Many who witness a mass shooting suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, which the National Institute of Mental Health defines as "a disorder that develops in people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event." We often see this type of trauma in the course of treating military service members, veterans and their families through Universal Health Services' Patriot Support Program. Common symptoms include insomnia, anxiety, fear, numbness and despair. In these moments, hope can often seem remote.
Effective mental wellness support requires interdisciplinary clinical protocols. While recovery means different things for different people, key common elements can help survivors turn the corner. Is your organization prepared to help medical providers and survivors on the road to recovery if tragedy should strike in your community? Some recommendations:
Build mental health support into trauma readiness preparations. The best trauma centers in the nation, especially in urban areas, conduct regular exercises to test their ability to respond in the event of a major trauma crisis with seemingly countless victims. Recovery from mental trauma for victims, their families and the community should be included in these preparations. This requires setting up locations at facilities where individuals can receive support and knowing in advance the sources for additional resources, including mental health professionals and faith leaders.
Take care of your team. While medical professionals are trained to function in high-stress environments such as those experienced during episodes of mass violence, they can still suffer from mental trauma that can linger over time. Work to cultivate a culture where it is OK to ask for help and provide resources for team members to access when needed.
The road to "normal." A major factor in recovery for survivors and medical staff is getting back to "normal." This may be easier for some, but the key is to get there. This includes making sure they are taking care of their physical health, eating properly and getting back to familiar activities. However, they should set boundaries by monitoring and moderating intake of social media and news sources. Recovery also means mentally adjusting to a post-trauma reality, showing themselves and others compassion and re-building resilience.
In the Las Vegas shooting, many concert attendees were not from the area. UHS' Palmdale (Calif.) Regional Medical Center established a support center for injured victims and bystanders to help them find healing in the aftermath of the tragedy. People kept coming to Palmdale every week because in some way it allowed them to seek support in a safe and nurturing environment. They appreciated it so much that they cried with gratitude when the hospital said they would extend the program for additional weeks.
There is nothing easy about recovering from the trauma of mass tragedy. The hope is that survivors and communities actively seek out the help needed to support their immediate and long-term mental health and well-being. The medical community must continue to support those who need care as they regain their sense of the world around them and the mental resilience to move on.