Thursday, June 11, 2009

Secondary Trauma and the Holocaust Museum Shooting

The Quarterback is looking forward to not having anything to write about in terms of crisis in the news. The Quarterback is also not holding her breath.

When Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams respond to a traumatic event, we often visualize the response in terms of a number of concentric circles. At the center of the circle are the people who were most directly impacted by an event -- the ones who saw it and heard it and experienced it. Each successive circle is a group that was impacted by successively smaller degrees. These might be first responders, people who were evacuated, families, friends, etc. Some events have just a few circles, and some have a ton. The CISM team plans different responses for different groups, based on their exposure to the event and how much impact they are feeling.

Today, the Quarterback takes a look at one of the outermost circles of the shooting yesterday at the museum in Washington, D.C. Yesterday, a man walked into the foyer of the United States Holocaust Museum and opened fire. Security Guard Stephen Tyrone Johns is dead, and the alleged shooter is in critical condition. The suspect is an 88 year old man who is a known white supremacist, anti-semite and conspiracy theorist.

It's not hard to identify the innermost circles: the other guards, the first responders, the patrons who witnessed the shooting, the people who were in the museum, the pedestrians on the street, the families of the guards, the families of the patrons, etc. Out towards the edge of the circle, somewhere between all of these ones and the American public as a whole, lies the American Jewish community. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of that community.

You might expect those of us who were not anywhere near Washington yesterday and didn't know anyone on the scene to be just plain angry. And certainly a lot of American Jews are angry and/or sad. But I'd venture a guess that I am not the only one experiencing some mild symptoms of what is known in the trade as "secondary trauma."

Secondary trauma is a term most often used to describe the effect on trauma interventionists and counselors of listening to descriptions of other people's trauma. Not surprisingly, if you listen to enough grisly stories and don't or can't unload the properly, it is going to get to you. In this instance, the trauma being suffered by American Jews is a little bit different. In fact, you could probably argue that it isn't secondary at all. It's "it could have been us" or "we could be next" trauma.

You have probably experienced that kind of trauma yourself. Most Americans did after 9-11. It stems from the realization that someone came to kill people just like you simply because they were just like you. I said several times yesterday that I took this attack personally, and that's because it was intended personally. And of course, it was intended to traumatize and to frighten, and in that sense, to whatever degree, it worked.

If you read the Quarterback's post yesterday, you know that trauma that is played out in the media and politicized is that much harder to bounce back from. That is part of the signs of distress the American Jewish community is experiencing now. While we appreciate and support the expressions of sorrow, outrage and support, there is also that feeling, so often expressed by trauma survivors, that others just don't "get" what it's like for us. And, as CISM responders tell survivors all the time, it is true that others don't get it, and that's ok. We all experience life from our own perspective.

So, what is the intervention for the American Jewish community? What should some CISM team be doing for us? The Quarterback recommends some version of a Crisis Management Briefing (CMB). In a classic CMB, a community comes together to hear the facts of the situation and the details of the investigation from the proper authorities and to learn about signs and symptoms of distress that they may experience following the incident. In schools, we use this with staff after an incident at school or in the school community, and sometimes with parents who want reassurance about what is going on for their kids.

There is no reason, however, that a CMB has to be done in person, and so I would suggest that leaders of Jewish institutions (and I know some of them have already done this) reach out to their constituencies via email and/or websites. The message can be fairly straightforward:
As you know, _____ is what happened. The latest information we have from ____ source is _____. We will keep you updated. It is very understandable that many of us, in addition to anger and sadness, are feeling scared or upset on a personal level. This is to be expected when an attack is aimed so squarely at our community. Some of you might be experiencing symptoms such as feeling irritable or having trouble sleeping. Please take care of yourself: find someone to talk to, or call _____ to talk to us. Take time to do something relaxing for yourself. Try to eat well and get some rest. Your symptoms should subside in the next several days. If they don't, please contact us or the mental health professional of your choice for some assistance.

The funny thing is, by far the most powerful statement in this communication is the simple phrase, "This is to be expected." Ninety percent of trauma response is educating people so they know they aren't crazy, or, as we prefer to say, "This is the typical response of normal people to a very abnormal event."

And of course, the Quarterback hopes that this truly continues to be a very abnormal and isolated event.


Meet the Quarterback

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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