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Recovering From the Unthinkable

In “Protect & Defend” (December 2013), author Patrick White passes along helpful advice from school security experts. While prevention tips can help reduce your risk of being a victim of violence, particularly at school, terrible things can and do happen. And if they happen to you or a loved one, you should be prepared to deal with a unique recovery. School Nutrition asked White to research this issue for its readers.


Long after physical danger has passed, emotional trauma can remain. That’s something that military medical experts have observed of soldiers returning home from war, and it’s the same for those who are confronted with violence here at home, says David Kaplan, PhD. “The symptoms are related to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” explains Kaplan, who is chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association (ACA, www.counseling.org), the world’s largest association of professional counselors.

Kaplan has coordinated ACA’s response in the aftermath of numerous traumatic incidents, ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the shootings at Virginia Tech and in Aurora, Colo. “This area is what’s known as ‘disaster mental health,’” states Kaplan. “We’ve learned a lot about this field in the last 10 years, unfortunately because there have been a lot of disasters and shootings.”

According to Kaplan, one of the things that professionals have come to realize is that the focus after a horrific incident tends to be only on those who were most directly involved. In the case of a school shooting, for example, it’s likely that much of the counseling and support provided afterward will be directed to those people who were in the room at the time, or who saw the shooter, he notes. “But we’ve learned that you need to pay as much attention to those who may not have been in the room or didn’t see it, but are part of the school system, because they can be traumatized just as much as the people who were directly in the line of fire.”

The technical term for this is “vicarious trauma,” and there can be many symptoms, he notes. These include:

  • replaying an event over and over in your mind and not being able to shut it off;
  • having flashbacks and reliving the event (which affects even those who weren’t direct witnesses);
  • experiencing stressful reactions when going near where the event occurred or at even coming to school at all;
  • having nightmares or other sleep disruptions;
  • using drugs or alcohol to deal with anxiety and other feelings;
  • avoiding other people, including loved ones; and
  • experiencing symptoms of depression, including a loss of energy and inability to work, concentrate or just “feel good.”

“People may also experience hyper-vigilance—a reaction where they try to make sure the incident will never happen again,” Kaplan adds. “Somebody, for example, might find themselves walking down a school hallway constantly looking at every students’ hands to make sure they’re not holding anything inappropriate.”

Kaplan emphasizes that reactions after traumatic incidents are very individualized, and it may be difficult for those affected to understand exactly what symptoms they are experiencing. “The easier way for people to think about it is: ‘Is this event interfering with my life?’” he notes. If you are “different” after a traumatic event—for example, if you were able to have fun before an event and now you simply can’t, or if you’re constantly worried, or if you were social before the event and now you’re withdrawn—these are clues to pay attention to, he advises.

“The good news,” Kaplan offers, “is that we’ve learned that people are amazingly resilient. We find that the vast majority of people who experience vicarious trauma are able to recover in about two weeks. We tell people that it’s going to be difficult for a couple of weeks. But if the symptoms remain after two weeks, that’s when we suggest you talk to a professional counselor.” Obviously, symptoms such as suicidal thoughts should be addressed immediately.

Some people may be reluctant to seek professional help, perhaps because they think they can deal with it themselves. Professional counselors don’t provide general diagnoses, but rather will talk through individual experiences and try to provide symptom relief, Kaplan explains. (The ACA website provides a directory to help identify local professional counselors in a specified area.) He stresses that the symptoms experienced by those who experience trauma are perfectly normal. “They are normal reactions to an abnormal event. Shootings, disasters, traumas, suicides—these are things we really were never designed to experience,” he asserts.

But it’s not just worst-case scenarios that can trigger trauma, he adds. “If you know a student very well and serve him lunch every day and bond with him, and that student gets hit by a car and ends up in the hospital, it’s going to affect you,” cautions Kaplan. “It’s not always the severity of the event that matters, but how connected you are to it.” The same is true for people who might be the victim of an assault or theft—and those close to people who experience these kinds of events.