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A Mental Health Nurse’s Perspective on Newtown and Its Aftermath

December 19, 2012
Mary Magdalene Crying statue/Wikimedia Commons

Mary Magdalene Crying statue/Wikimedia Commons

By Donna Sabella, MEd, MSN, PhD, RN, mental health nurse, AJN contributing editor, and coordinator of the monthly Mental Health Matters column

As we all know by now, last Friday, December 14, our nation was forced to bear witness to another act of unconscionable violence, as 20 children and six adults were gunned down inside their elementary school on a morning that began with the murder of the  gunman’s mother.

As the country ponders why and how this could have happened, we know that there are no easy answers. Those answers that we do arrive at will undoubtedly involve much thought and soul-searching. How could one human being, one lone gunman barely an adult himself, wreak such devastation on so many?

The pain and grief of Friday hangs heavy over Newtown, and only those who lost a child or loved one that day can begin to imagine the sorrow they are experiencing. But the sorrow and grief do not stop there. As President Obama stated on Sunday night in his remarks to the Newtown community, the nation collectively shares their sorrow, disbelief, and pain.

As we know, one need not be directly involved in an event to be affected by it. This horrible event forces us all to confront the notion that while we are the land of the brave and the home of the free, we share our land with evil, with senseless violence, and with concerns about our safety. If a child cannot be safe in school, what must we as a nation do to correct that situation?

As we all struggle to come to grips with the events of December 14, there will undoubtedly be challenges to the psychological well-being and mental health of first responders who were exposed to scenes most cannot imagine, of those directly affected by the shooting, and even of those of us miles away. Under the circumstances, it’s normal to feel pain, grief, anger, fear, and a number of other emotions and feelings. It’s normal to empathize with those closest to the epicenter of tragedy. At times like this, we need to be good to ourselves and find ways to acknowledge and process our pain.

Below are a number of things we can do to take care of ourselves at such times, as well as a few resources that may be useful:

  • Acknowledge and honor what you are feeling instead of trying to ignore or cover up what you are experiencing.
  • Know that we all grieve differently, so don’t worry if your feelings don’t match those of others. And contrary to popular opinion, not everyone needs to talk about things, especially right after a traumatic event.
  • Find and do what gives you peace during trying times. For some, comfort is found in religion and spirituality; for others, talking to a trusted friend, doing volunteer work, or spending time with friends and family provides solace and comfort.
  • Take care of yourself physically, making sure to get enough sleep, eat right, and exercise; don’t rely on drugs and alcohol for solace or stress relief.
  • A major concern is what to tell our children, should they have questions. Base your responses on the child’s age and the questions she or he asks, and let them talk about how they’re feeling.
  • Focus on the here and now. We can’t undo the past or control the future. Living in the present helps keep us grounded.
  • Know that you’re not alone and that many others are experiencing similar feelings. For most, recovery will come in time. However, should you begin to feel overwhelmed, seek mental health help. Depending on your situation, you may want to consider grief counseling as well as trauma-based counseling.

Resources and Information

Grief: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/grief_loss.htm

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): http://www.nami.org/

PTSD: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001923/

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: http://www.goodtherapy.org/trauma-focused-cognitive-behavioral-therapy.html

On December 14, Adam Lanza joined the list of those whose names are seared into our collective memory: Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Lee Loughner, and James Eagan Holmes. Would that getting each of these young men the mental health services they could have used were as easy as their getting guns. Maybe then we would see less of this type of thing and fewer names on the list. I believe that gun control is important, but we also need to do more about making  mental health treatment more accessible and less stigmatizing and improving society’s understanding of mental health matters as well. In the next Mental Health Matters column, I will share in more detail what we might do to better recognize and intervene before someone crosses the line.

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One comment

  1. [...] I help?” and “What can I do?” I encourage you to see posts from our colleagues at AJN’s Off The Charts and Nursetopia for lists of resources and ways to help. Also, the American Nurses Association has [...]

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