In a previous interview with CalSouthern grad, Dr. Deborah Vinall, PsyD, LMFT, she shared insights about her clinical practice and sub-specialty treating victims of mass shootings as well as key findings from her research on this topic. To continue the conversation, we asked Dr. Vinall to share her expertise on how best to support survivors on their healing journey, both for loved ones of victims and mental health practitioners. She also shares her wisdom on how to maintain optimal mental health amid the rising instances of gun violence.
1. What can others do to support their loved ones who have survived a traumatic event, such as a mass shooting?
Because survivors both heal best with the support of their loved ones while simultaneously pulling away from interdependence due to the fear of overwhelming their support systems with the horror through which they lived, it is important that loved ones make explicit through words, action, and presence their intention and capacity to be there for the shooting survivor. For example, when the survivor is triggered and visibly shaken by fireworks, family members may ask if the survivor is “okay.” Though the survivor may assure their family that they are “fine”, a helpful response might be, “It’s okay to not be okay. I’ll sit with you.”
Recognize that everyone’s path to healing is unique. Do not pressure them to do things for which they may not be ready, such as returning to music festivals after a concert-based shooting. Provide support if they initiate such a venture, and be prepared to follow their lead in departing if the exposure becomes psychologically overwhelming. Never, never shame, ridicule, or tease someone with PTSD for hypervigilant, fearful, or startle reactions. Reassure of safety, provide a calm presence, and create a soothing environment. Allow for a return to normalcy, not treating the loved one differently with sad looks or avoidance, while remaining sensitive if at times your friend or family member is triggered. Offer to listen, but don’t push for details.
Family and friends should educate themselves to the symptoms of PTSD so they can recognize when the survivor is experiencing triggering, normalize reactions, and collaborate to create a greater sense of safety. Partners might come to therapy to work through any relationship impacts and learn how to provide support, and consider seeking their own therapy to work through the vicarious trauma they experienced as they feared the death of their loved one in the initial minutes or hours of seeing the news before contact was made. It is critical to remember that just because your trauma appears to be “less,” it is no less real and worthy of healing. Dealing with one’s own effects supports the survivor by diffusing pressure within the relationship.
2. What advice do you have for mental health practitioners who want to better support their clients struggling with the trauma from experiencing a mass shooting?
Learn about the shooting through the widely available news sources so that you are not forcing your client to educate you. This is a basic specific competence, just as when treating a minority patient you do not put the burden on them to educate you about their lived experience as part of that minority group. This will provide you with context as they tell and work through their story so that you do not waste their time or distract their focus with your own questions.
If you do not have specialized training in EMDR or Brainspotting, refer the client. A strong and consistent finding in my research demonstrated the prolonged harm suffered by survivors who were delayed in accessing one of these sub-cortical treatments, whether through lack of any therapy or through receiving only talk therapy. The longer the client had to wait to receive EMDR or Brainspotting, the slower their progress when they began, and the less complete their healing.
Finally, if you are working with survivors of mass shootings, be cognizant of the psychological strain of vicarious trauma, which was a frequent theme amongst clinicians interviewed who worked with this population. Maintain healthy boundaries around your time, seek consultation, and debrief with professional peers. Maintain or institute a solid self-care routine. Consider accessing your own therapy to deal with fears, imagery, or emotions that are evoked in you through the process of treating mass shooting survivors.
3. Mass shootings can also affect the surrounding community or far-reaching media recipients causing fear and anxiety. Is there research and/or advice for those not directly impacted, but in fear of it happening closer to them?
Absolutely. Research supports the very real impact of vicarious trauma through media exposure, which may be compounded in children. Be mindful of your media consumption and even moreso of children in your care, who will have less sophisticated ability to process and integrate such information. Give yourself permission to turn off the news or elect not to read the details that follow the headlines. It does not mean you are a callous person if you know your psychological limits and decide not to over-expose yourself. Knowing every vivid detail doesn’t undo the injustice or bring victims back.
If you are a parent or caregiver, talk to the children in your care about what they hear when a mass shooting happens. You don’t need to provide excess details, but be open and curious about what they have heard and what fears or questions they may have. Find out what makes them feel safe and secure, and after following their lead in discussing as much or as little as they want or need to, turn to present-focused activities that will help everyone to feel grounded. Physical activities such as biking, running, jumping on a trampoline, or dancing are especially helpful in releasing stress and fear as it is held in the body.
Finally, don’t minimize your own reactions. Just because you may not have been there doesn’t mean you weren’t impacted. If you are feeling fearful and anxious after reading or hearing of a mass shooting in your community or the country at large, honor those real feelings and give yourself permission to process them through journaling or, ideally, through seeking out the services of a qualified trauma therapist.
4. Is there anything else you would like to add that you feel our readers would benefit from?
While the trauma is significant and the event life-changing, survivors of mass shootings availed of high-quality trauma treatment with a qualified therapist demonstrate post-traumatic growth, re-engage with life in old and new ways, and grow their interpersonal relationships. There is hope and light ahead.
To learn more about Dr. Vinall’s valuable work, visit tamarcounseling.com.