The still recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, touches us to our core. Children — America’s most preciously resource – were literally gunned down, taking away bright futures and the promises of tomorrow.
To make matters worse, these children were killed in the one place we expect to be safe: our elementary schools. Their teachers, principal and counselor — the protectors — were eviscerated too, leaving us all feeling defenseless and fragile. Our hearts break for the surviving families and for the Newtown community.
When disasters like Sandy Hook occur, we cannot help but reconnect individually and as a nation with other similar events that have devastated us and, in some instances, continue to devastate us. Hurricane Katrina, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy come to mind immediately. These are what psychologists call “Large T- traumas.”
In addition to these well-known, Larger T media-covered events, here’s an oft-unrecognized and unaddressed reality: there are personal ongoing tragedies and traumas that many people have and continue to encounter. For our most vulnerable students, such events are not one-time events; they are daily occurrences – living in poverty, experiencing hunger, witnessing or experiencing drug and alcohol abuse, separation from family members, lacking parental support and role modeling, and sleeping in shelters or on streets. Psychologists call these “Small t-traumas,” although the word “Small” does not reference the enormity of the impact but the frequency and aggregation of ongoing trauma.
All of these types of personal traumas are dredged up by the Sandy Hook event, even if we try to keep them deeply cabined away.
What this means is that while the direct survivors of the Sandy Hook tragedy are experiencing trauma as are the first responders, so too are we. We are experiencing what can be termed vicarious trauma — the result of witnessing (either directly or through the media) other people’s suffering and need.
One set of issues triggered by this tragedy is how we can help those in Newtown heal and how we can heal ourselves and our communities, even as the media coverage quiets down. Another set of issues revolves around how we can prevent similar incidents moving forward. While these two topics appear distinct, they are actually intertwined: one avenue for fostering healing of a current tragedy is to consider ways to prevent future tragedies. By channeling energies into preventative measures, present pain is somewhat ameliorated.
Two primary prevention approaches have emerged across the nation: calls for improved gun control including assault weapon bans and/or improved mental health evaluation and treatment. As President Obama said in his State of the Union this February, we need to come together as a nation to protect our children; we cannot permit more lost birthday and graduation ceremonies.
To be sure, although debated feverishly, fewer assault weapons and better identification of and assistance for the mentally ill should help curb prospective school shootings. But, these measures will not eliminate all school-based violence and trauma – from kindergarten through college. That is why we need to focus on a third prevention approach that has not received sufficient attention to date in our view: a concerted effort to recognize and teach individuals and communities how to be resilient.
Stated most simply, resiliency is defined as the capacity to bounce back from or withstand the impact of untoward events and return, if possible, to the emotional state one was in before these occurrences. Often viewed as a process rather than a trait, resiliency education involves strengthening the individual who is or may become traumatized and fostering a supportive environment that recognizes the impact of trauma and strategies for its amelioration. For some, the current meaning of the word “resiliency” needs to be expanded to capture fully the nuances of trauma, including the fact that some traumas are so severe that the recuperation is never complete and that for others, return to the status quo ante is an impossibility.
The calls for ex ante resiliency education have already been heard and implemented in other contexts. The National Academies Press just published a report titled Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative, focusing on the role local, state and federal agencies can play in preparing for disaster situations.
The US Military has increasingly employed resiliency training to better prepare deploying soldiers for the devastations of war. And, there are growing initiatives within some schools – with a set of emerging promising practices – to develop trauma sensitive environments and resiliency among our most vulnerable students. And, there is new thinking on an expanded framework for reflecting on what it truly means to be resilient.
Moving forward, we can and should debate how best to build and assess the effectiveness of resiliency education. But what is crucial now is to recognize the value of — and our capacity to teach – resiliency. This will benefit not only those who experienced one-time traumas; it will help ameliorate repeated traumas many of America’s children experience day-in and day-out.
So, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, we can begin to heal ourselves and our communities – post facto and ex ante – by developing resiliency. And, as the memorials disappear in Newtown and as the noise around this tragedy starts to quiet, we cannot stop our efforts to prepare our nation and its children for life’s exigencies – for both Large T and Small t traumas. If not now, when?