Monday, January 7, 2013
I want to start this post with a disclaimer: I am not a licensed counselor or therapist, and I am do not have a PhD or a PsyD in clinical psychology. I held this post for two weeks because I wanted to give my thoughts on events some time to process. This post is based on my experience as a law student who experienced major trauma and as an ASP professional who has worked with students experiencing major trauma. If you have a student who is experiencing major trauma, I suggest consulting with a licensed mental health professional.
Connecticut is the size of a shoebox; several states have counties that are almost as large as my home state. Everyone I know has a personal connection to the tragedy of two weeks ago; they have a friend, neighbor, or colleague related to a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they have lived in Newtown, or they are related to a first responder. The tragedy is unspeakable, but here in Connecticut, it's the only thing anyone can talk about. It's on the news, in the papers, on the radio. The horror is replayed over and over.
I anticipate that there are law students studying in other states, and at other law schools, that have a connection to the tragedy. I am sharing some of my experience, in hopes that it can help a new ASPer who may not have experience working with students experiencing major trauma.
Don't expect them to want to share, talk or emote. As a culture, we expect people experiencing major trauma to scream, cry, yell, and emote. Not all people process tragedy in this way. You may not know who is experiencing major trauma until well after the event. Students will share on their own schedule.
They will laugh. Yes, they will laugh, even in the depths of grieving. They will smile.They will go out with their friends. They will play board games, go to parties, and hang out with friends. It does not mean they are blocking or avoiding the trauma. It means they are living.Do not expect, or pressure them, to take the semester off. Some people process grief by adhering to the structure that shapes their life. Some students will need to go right back to class, take a full course load, and work a part-time job. The structure helps them feel safe in a world where nothing feels safe. Do not pressure a student to take it easy, or take a reduced course load, or to take time off. For a student who needs purpose in their life, telling them to stay home, without a focus, will be terrifying. Let the student decide what they need in their life in order to process their feelings.
They may not want to go home if they live in CT. Our instincts tell us that someone experiencing major trauma will want to go home. But not everyone feels they can handle the situation, and those students may want to take a break before coming home. They should not be made to feel unfeeling if they decide to stay with a friend instead of going straight home. Living in CT right now is extremely difficult. Yes, we have come together as a state. But the media is an echo chamber of sensationalism, distortions, and horror. It's not just traditional news coverage; daytime and prime-time TV is being regularly interrupted by memorials, tributes, and "breaking" news. Not everyone can handle going back to a place that will force them to relive horror, day after day. If a student has a history of major trauma, it may be safest for them to go to a place where they feel somewhat sheltered from the media.
My experience is that there are as many ways to process tragedy and trauma as there are humans on earth. Everyone is shaped by their own experiences. There are many ways to grieve, and many ways to mourn. As long as the student is practicing self-care, their method of processing and healing is normal. Watch for self-destructive coping mechanisms: alcohol, drugs, or a refusal to engage with the world. Get a professional involved immediately if you think the student is making self-destructive choices. (RCF)