Published on October 28th, 2014 | from CAMH

Trauma and Tragedy

by Dr. Donna Ferguson, Psychologist with the WSIB Psychological Trauma Program


Dr. Donna Ferguson

In the wake of tragic events such as last week’s shooting in Ottawa, many unanswered questions have arisen about the role that mental illness played, if any, in this attack. What I would like to discuss today is something different—the impact that such a traumatic event can have on others, including people we may know or work with.

The potential for experiencing mental health issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be exacerbated amongst first responders (ambulance, paramedics, police), witnesses, victims, their friends and family, and the individuals tasked with guaranteeing the public’s safety and security.

In my previous blog, I talked about trauma on the job and the role that stigma and shame play in preventing people from seeking help. Tragic events such as this one are no different.

The recency, proximity and publicity of this event may serve as a trigger for someone who has experienced prior traumatic stress. Others may find that they are affected in new ways and exhibit different symptoms – which may go unnoticed or dismissed until much later on when it affects their personal lives.

Knowing this, we need to recognize that mental health issues can affect anyone, and a person’s outward demeanor may belie inner turmoil.

How to broach the topic of mental health

Those who feel that they are experiencing a mental health issue may want to speak with their family doctor. A trusted physician is a good conduit to accessing resources. A referral to a psychiatrist who can provide a diagnosis and suggest treatment options may follow; or in some cases, a psychologist may be referred.

If a colleague you have a close connection with seems distant, isolated or just doesn’t seem themselves, it won’t hurt to ask if something is wrong. and express your concern

Stigma and Education

People will want to make sense of these events. They will want to believe there is a reason behind what the gunman did. But, we may never know. For most of us, blind speculation will not help – and it’s this uninformed hearsay that may lead to more misunderstanding and prejudice towards mental health issues.

Those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness may feel stigmatized by rumours. It’s up to us all to be mindful of the way we speak and the language we use so we do not unintentionally propagate stigma and ostracize those who may already be vulnerable.

This speaks to a larger need for education about mental health, but also about stigma. Knowledge is power, and we can wield that power to help and comfort others, rather than to hurt.

Moving forward

Everyone has been touched by this event in some way. By accommodating the needs of those affected by this traumatic event, and ensuring they have access to the support they need, we can move forward.

Of note, much of the coverage we’ve seen has been very respectful. Sensationalized stories and headlines can also serve as a trigger for anyone who experiences PTSD.

Finally, we should all be profoundly grateful to the people who are responsible for the safety of all Canadians.

Image courtesy of ErasingScott on Flickr

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