Does National Tragedy Impact Our Mental Health?

Sometimes it seems as if we’re surrounded by traumatic events. School shootings. Church shootings. Terrorist attacks.

“In our media-driven society, we have access to so much more information. We see traumatic images on our television screens, on our computers — people are deluged with it,” says Marsha Drees, MSSA, LISW, director of Symmetry Wellness at Harbor Behavioral Health, a ProMedica affiliate. “It can trigger a fair amount of anxiety. Because it seems like it’s happening more and more. Statistically, that may not necessarily be true, but it feels that way because we’re seeing so much more of it in the media.”

While it’s normal to experience short-term anxiety following these events, most people are able to recover emotionally as time goes on. However, these horrific incidents can have lasting effects, particularly on individuals who have experienced trauma in the past.

Horrific incidents can have lasting effects, particularly on individuals who have experienced trauma in the past.

“What is a person’s prior experience and have they had any traumatic events in their own life?” Drees asks. “Have they resolved those events? Because if they haven’t, they may be more prone to anxiety from media stories and it may not even be conscious. They could be watching footage and then all of a sudden having a strong emotional reaction — which doesn’t seem warranted because they’re not involved, but yet they’ve got all this unresolved stuff built up.”

Drees, who has been counseling patients for nearly 30 years, has gone into businesses following traumatic events, such as bank robberies and deaths in the workplace. She says 95 percent of people are resilient in dealing with traumatic events and experience little to no long-term effects.

She says it’s normal to have stress reactions for up to four weeks after a traumatic event, but they shouldn’t linger beyond that. Those having trouble moving past a traumatic event may have trouble getting it off their mind. Their mood, sleep and eating habits may noticeably change.

“Those are all good signs that professional help should be sought,” Drees says. “Of course, early detection is key. The more it lingers, the more it becomes a hindrance in one’s life.”

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Harbor is taking part in “trauma-informed care,” a national shift in how trauma is treated. Instead of trying to answer what is wrong with a person displaying post-traumatic stress, counselors now aim to create a safe and supportive environment for survivors and to better understand what happened to that individual.

This means ensuring that survivors aren’t inadvertently re-traumatized during assessments, providing a physically and emotionally safe environment, empowering survivors to collaborate in their own treatment plans, and helping survivors harness their strengths to facilitate recovery. In essence, it relies on an organization-wide understanding of trauma and its effects, including a person’s coping mechanisms.

In addition to urging a loved one to get professional help, Drees says basic support provided to a loved one can be fundamental in aiding recovery.

“A lot of times [it’s] just letting them know you are readily available to them if they want support,” she says. “Sometimes people aren’t able to communicate what they need — they don’t even know.”

She mentioned a man she worked with who was injured in a workplace accident. His coworkers came by his home to mow the lawn each week.

“Very practical support in the moment can be very helpful,” she says. “While that seems so very simple, it was practical support that conveyed they were behind him.”

For more information about Harbor Behavioral Health’s trauma services, please visit www.harbor.org or call 419-475-4499.

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