In the wake of various tragedies related to lack of mental health services and that dangerous encounter with gun use leaves us speechless, angry, confused, frightened. The National Child & Traumatic Stress Network shares some important tips. In general, it’s a good resource. I thought that I would also share words by Mark Smaller, PhD who is the President-Elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
I happened to be working from home today when I received the first CNN. As the morning wore on, worst fears were realized. Again, unthinkable horror of children, teachers and staff being cut down by a shooter. I knew our association would need a response, but thinking of my own young children at school today immobilized me. I went grocery shopping to cope. I focused on a grocery list.
It wasn’t until I picked up my kids at school that I began to think again. I explained to them what had happened, and my 12 year old middle school daughter said she had heard. My seven year old twins had not.
Explaining this to our children or grandchildren is complex but must be done. One wants to be clear about what happened as the TV will make things not only clear but scary. Being truthful while assuring safety is the challenge for any parent, while taking age and development into account. My seven year old son responded, “Dad, I’m not afraid because we have lockdown drills. We know what to do.” I assured them that their school takes precautions with locked doors and drills and they are safe. When he asked why someone could do this, I hesitated. “We don’t know. We will find out what happened.”
It is true that we will find out through the media and hear about it throughout the holidays. Our helplessness, the worst of all possible human feelings, demands it. Our anger, disbelief and sadness will help us organize some story, psychoanalytic or not, in our minds after facts of the shooter’s life emerges.
But even finding out, even developing profiles, and greater school, mall, or workplace security, will not prevent such tragedies. Sadly, they are unpredictable and will continue to occur. I have always believed they will become worse with the the inaccessibility for mental health services for most Americans, a poor economy, the remaining stigma and resistance for getting appropriate help, easy access to guns, and something that goes wrong in our culture.
As an adult and child psychoanalyst I still can’t sort it out. After practicing over 40 years I have seen adolescents, and adults who I imagined would be capable of such violence. Although I work with students in an alternative high school, many of whom are in gangs, they are not necessarily the ones I think about when this kind of tragedy occurs. Gang culture is violent, and frightening but somehow more predictable than what happened today in Newtown.
No, its the students who have been quietly bullied for years, or seriously neglected at home, or subtly marginalized by the time they are young adults. I think of the ones who were not disruptive at school, but rather gradually socially withdrew during high school. I think of severely traumatized returning veterans who are no longer themselves when they arrive home and cannot get appropriate help. Overwhelming helplessness, isolation, and possibly access to weapons can compel one towards explosive violence.
We as psychoanalysts, as parents, grandparents, friends, and fellow citizens in our communities must pull together and help each other cope. Speaking to each other of this tragedy is a critical start. And we can’t forget. A dear friend, now 25 years later, still suffers the impact of having been in an elementary school as a student when such a shooting took place. Survival has meant reliving this trauma each time these tragedies occur. We cannot forget.
Helping survivors, helping our children, our communities, our schools, and our politicians, will not happen with quick answers or glib solutions. Rather, we must first share common pain and making our compassion known in word and action. We cannot immediately make sense of this, but we can try together.
I was walking across a parking lot later today with my son. I found myself not being able to let go of his hand, even once in the building. We should all hold each other a little more tightly tonight and for awhile.