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Community Trauma: The Long View

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Over the past week, Californians have experienced a string of tragic and traumatic events. A mass shooting at a dance party in a club in Thousand Oaks, quickly followed by devastating and destructive wildfires in West Los Angeles and Northern California. Families torn apart, communities erased from the map, close to five hundred buildings destroyed, thousands of people displaced, over fifty dead, and more missing.

Most Californians are in shock. Those who still have their homes and families intact are reaching out to those in need, offering support any way they know how. Donating money, taking friends and neighbors in, feeding them, and comforting them with hugs and kindness.

Those who lost everything are trying to process the events. They’re in survival mode, thinking of what’s right in front of them.

They’re asking basic questions:

  • Where will I sleep tonight?
  • Where will I eat?
  • How are my kids taking this?

When emergency services contain the fires, they’ll return home to find out if they still have one. Then they’ll ask another set of questions:

  • Do I have anything left?
  • How will I rebuild?
  • When can my kids go back to school?
  • Will things ever return to normal?
  • Do I even have a job anymore?

Right now, communities in California are mobilizing to offer short-term support. Shelters offer safe places to sleep and meals to eat. Mental health professionals offer what’s called psychological first aid: counseling to process shock, grief, loss, and anxiety about the future. Friends and families do the same: provide safe places to sleep and eat, as well as their unofficial version of counseling. They offer hugs, kind words, and reassurances that things will get better. They remind one another they can rebuild, and that though all appears to be lost, all is not lost.

Community Support: Look for the Helpers

We won’t try to sell you on a silver lining. But we will point out that during times of crisis, communities come together. People help one another. For most, it’s instinct. We see someone in need, and if we can, we help. It’s one of the most admirable things about humankind. We’ve seen it countless times over the past couple of years. In the face of tragedy, everyday people step up and become heroes.

Which brings us to an important point.

When events pile up in rapid succession as they have over the past week in California, things get lost in the chaos. People get lost. Take the Thousand Oaks shooting, for instance. That night and the day after, it dominated the headlines and got national attention. The community rallied. Then the very next day – when families were still in shock – the fires started. And again, the community rallied. Which is incredible: our communities are responsive and responsible.

But it’s complicated. The victims of the fires need help, of course. Yet the families of the victims of the shooting still need help, too. And though they are not forgotten, the media hasn’t written a word about them since the fires started.

That’s the important point we want to make. When something terrible happens, the news makes sure we focus on it. Then, when the next terrible thing happens, our attention shifts – and we forget about yesterday’s tragedy because it’s not dominating the headlines.

However, the people affected by the yesterday’s tragedy – and the yesterdays before that – still need help.

Short and Long-Term Support

Think back over the past year and a half.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Mass shootings happen in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas. The Parkland School shooting shocks Florida and the Santa Fe shooting guts Texas. Hurricanes Florence and Michael hit the Carolinas and the Florida Panhandle. A mass shooting devastates a synagogue in Pittsburg. Then the Thousand Oaks shooting and the Woolsey and Camp Fires happen in the space of two days in California.

In each case, the events dominated the news – until the next tragedy happened.

As a nation, we’re very good at rushing to help during a crisis. During and immediately after the events mentioned above, we rallied. The Cajun Navy deployed to help throughout the south and southeast. People donated money, food, and whatever they could. Parkland youth turned into activists after that shooting.

Then election news dominated everything, followed by more tragedy. Which means that today, Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico barely make anyone’s radar. But all those people are still hurting. The trauma of those events is long-term: PTSD, anxiety, depression – none of that goes away with one emergency counseling session a week after the initial trauma.

They need help for the long haul.

How We Can Improve

The effects of trauma can last for months, years, and sometimes decades. That’s why we need to adjust our thinking with regards to trauma that affects both individuals and entire communities. We need to understand that the victims of trauma need long-term, sustained support. Right now, here in Southern California, we can attest firsthand that we’re working day and night to help our neighbors in need. Firefighters battle fearlessly for days on end with no rest. Volunteers show up at shelters to cook food, hand out blankets, and offer basic human comfort. Mental health professionals offer emergency counseling.

All that is good.

But when the dust settles and the smoke clears – literally – lives do not go back to normal.

Six months from now, families will still be wrestling with loss: of loved ones, of homes, of belongings. Of jobs, of stability, of their quality of living and their way of life. PTSD and other psychological and emotional consequences may not even arise until the initial shock wears off, and that can take a long time.

That’s the next phase of help and support we need to offer our neighbors. We can’t let the short attention span of the twenty-four-hour news cycle distract us from the fact there’s no flipping the channel on human trauma. You can’t reduce human suffering to a five-word headline or a ten second soundbite and then move on.

That’s where we can do better.

People will need our help and support in the months and years to come. They’ll need help rebuilding their lives and finding a new normal. We can do that if we take the long view and commit to being here for them for as long as it takes.

And we don’t decide how long that is: only they do.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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