Healing Trauma After Orlando And Istanbul

A recent New York Times article ('I Thought They Were Playing Dead': Officers Are Haunted by Scene at Orlando Club, June 24, 2016) described the unfolding psychological pain of Orlando police officers who responded to the massacre at The Pulse. The piece suggested that fear of being stigmatized as sick or labeled as weak may deter officers from seeking much needed psychological support. I agree. When working with Sandy Hook first responders and community members and active duty military and veterans, as well as fire fighters after 9/11, I've observed similar concerns.

My experience working with psychological trauma in the Middle East and Turkey tells me there will be similar issues in Istanbul following the airport killings. The usual response to addressing traumatic events--enlisting individual therapists to provide one-on-one counseling--is well-intentioned but inadequate and potentially counterproductive. Solely focusing on individual trauma and its psychological consequences doesn't relieve the stigma or comprehensively address the pain of entire communities. Though many may benefit from individual therapy, it is crucial to acknowledge the collective wounds and to develop a plan to address them-- as a normal response to an overwhelming and abnormal situation.

A population-wide program of self-care and group support which invites vulnerability and also appreciates strengths is likely to be most effective as well as most acceptable. This is the kind of program The Center for Mind-Body Medicine has successfully implemented in Israel, Gaza, Kosovo, and Haiti and in Southern Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, as well as with US Military.

Joining a group as a member of the community, not because you have a disorder, eliminates stigma. Self-care techniques--such as meditation, drawing, guided imagery, exercise, and movement-- help us quiet our fight or flight response, release tension, and overcome the feelings of powerlessness that overwhelm us when we confront horrors like the Orlando and Istanbul killings. Having the opportunity to share our pain with others who are similarly affected is powerfully therapeutic: social support is widely understood as the single most important factor in trauma recovery.

Treating affected individuals is not enough. Embracing and engaging the whole community in collective healing is essential.

James S. Gordon, MD, a psychiatrist, is Executive Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM). CMBM has used evidence-based Mind-Body Skills Groups to address population-wide trauma during and after wars, natural disasters, and mass killings. He is the author most recently of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression.