Discussing Tragedy: trauma, empathy, mental health
By Dr. Brad Schwall
Talking about tragedy has become an all too regularly occurring conversation. Trauma is caused by a threat to our safety and security. We become vigilant, we avoid situations connected to the traumatic event, and we fear the event happening again. To handle trauma we need connection, time to process, support, and often, professional care. We need a sense that we can survive. We need hope.
After the the tragic events in Dallas, we need to talk about more than only the events that transpired. We need to talk about one of the problems involved and one of the solutions needed in addressing the current issues in our nation.
A core problem in our society is a lack of empathy. A lack of empathy leads to the de-personalization of others who are different than ourselves. A one-dimensional perspective on others gained through screens – TV, film, and social media – leads to generalizations and prejudices. These skewed perspectives shut down conversation. When empathy is missing, our minds become closed.
A key solution to what we are facing is empathy. Empathy opens up dialogue. Empathy leads to respect. Empathy leads to problem-solving and solutions.
Empathy requires perspective-taking. Perspective-taking requires a deeper level of understanding. Taking the perspective of someone else means trying to understand what someone believes and reasons they may believe that based on their own experiences. Empathy does not mean knowing exactly what the other has experienced, but it means striving to understand a situation through the eyes of that person. Empathy can help us listen to the hurt and pain of others, whether that pain is caused by racial discrimination, lack of resources, grief, or mental illness.
Empathy requires action. Empathy is not passive. Empathy leads to evaluation of policies and methods in interactions between police and citizens. Empathy leads to the recognition that blacks and Latinos experience fewer privileges and opportunities and that actions are needed to seek equality. Empathy is needed for military personnel, veterans, and their families, put into action by providing resources and support.
Families with relatives dealing with mental illness need support. Veterans and families need mental health support. They need help getting help. They need education for navigating the mental health care system. Mental illnesses can lead to breaks from reality, paranoid thinking, hostility, erratic behavior, isolation, and violence. Empathy is needed for families of those dealing with serious mental illness which means breaking down the barriers that keep people from obtaining mental health care, including stigma.
Empathy is crucial to compassion and compassion is the antidote to hate. And to fight hate, violence, and discrimination, action must be taken. Focusing on action, helping others, and working together will help us handle the trauma of the events in Dallas and our nation. Action will bring hope.
Talking to Children About Tragedy
How do we explain the unexplainable to our children? How will our children be impacted? What do we need to say or do to help our children? These questions arise any time a tragedy in our country or world happens. The events on Thursday night in downtown Dallas make these questions even more intense and real. First and foremost, in order to encourage a healthy response to the tragedy, focus on compassion for those who lost loved ones. It's important to recognize that family members, friends, and co-workers were lost. Focusing on those who are helping helps give us hope that our world does have people who care and are brave and selfless. To allay any anxiety about the unpredictability of violence in the world, emphasize that there are many people working to keep us safe every day.
Talking about tragedy helps in processing and even learning compassion.
What do we share with children?
Only share information that is appropriate for your child to know based on age and temperament. If young children have learned of something that happened, young children just need to know something sad happened and we need to be thinking about the families impacted.
With older children, how do we have the conversation?
Let your children take the lead.
Let your children take the lead in the conversation. Ask, "what do you know about what happened?" Ask, "what questions do you have about what happened?" Older children may know more - focus on facts.
What can we do to prevent our kids from getting anxious?
Limit exposure to the media. Exposure to scenes of the tragedy can cause secondary trauma. Emphasize your child is safe. Share that many people do much every day to keep us all safe. Emphasize that you do everything you can to protect them and that we can feel safe.