Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond

This post is part of a series “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond,” based on an event of the same name hosted at Harvard Law School in April 2017. Background on the series and links to other blog posts are here.

By Cristine Hutchison-Jones, PhD

Community members gather at a memorial service after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Still from the documentary Newtown.

Community members gather at a memorial service after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Still from the documentary Newtown.

On June 12, 2016, an armed man walked into the Pulse night club—a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, packed with patrons enjoying Latin night—and opened fire. By the time the police shot the gunman three hours later, he had killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others in the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in American history.

As we mark today’s anniversary, the news is awash with stories of the way the shooting continues to impact people a year later. Much of the coverage—then and now—has rightfully focused on those most directly affected: the victims and their loved ones, and the LGBTQ and Latinx communities who were targeted and disproportionately impacted by the attack. But amidst the coverage of survivors and their loved ones, some stories are taking a step back to look at the broader impact. This is in keeping with a recent trend to discuss the lasting effects of incidents of mass violence on the wider community. Today’s coverage of the Pulse night club shooting includes stories that focus on the EMTs, police officers, and health care workers who were first on the scene and treated victims in the immediate aftermath of the attack, and on the impact of secondary trauma in their lives.

As Michelle Bosquet Enlow notes in her contribution to this series, “the definition of trauma includes not only direct exposure to actual or threatened death or serious injury, but also witnessing such an event or experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of such an event.” Secondary trauma—sometimes also referred to vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue—is the result not of direct experience of harm, but of intense exposure to the details of harm. First responders, health care workers, and other caregivers are known to be at high risk of experiencing secondary trauma. But while communities have focused on improving preparedness for mass casualty events and supporting victims and their loved ones in the aftermath, care for the “helpers” who provide so much of that support has lagged. In a recent profile of firefighters who responded to the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California, that killed over 30 people in December 2016, despite the fact that many firefighters acknowledged struggling with the emotional impact of the event “few have sought mental health treatment, because of stigma within the department, combined with a limit on free counseling sessions provided by the city.”

The failure to adequately support those suffering from secondary trauma—often the result of social stigma or the lack of access to or knowledge of resources—has devastating results. According to an NPR story about the struggle of one Orlando police officer to recover from what he saw at the Pulse night club:

Researchers say there isn’t a lot of data on PTSD rates in first responders, but […] it could range from 7 to 19 percent in police officers. When clinicians interviewed more than 400 officers in the Buffalo, N.Y., police department, 15 to 18 percent had PTSD.

A 2012 study found police officers were twice as likely to die from suicide, which can be associated with PTSD, than from traffic accidents or felony assaults.

By focusing almost exclusively on supporting those directly involved in events like the Sandy Hook School shooting and the Pulse night club shooting, we are failing to serve the needs of the many others whose lives are impacted—including the many “helpers” we depend on to support those directly affected.

In April 2017 the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, hosted “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond,” with support from William James College and the Science, Religion, and Culture Program at Harvard Divinity School. This film screening and panel discussion addressed challenges that arise from tragic acts of community violence with an intentional focus on the issue of secondary trauma in the community impacted by a mass tragedy like the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012. After a screening of the documentary Newtown, a panel including the film’s director Kim Snyder and experts in health law and policy, the neurobiology of trauma, and community approaches to violence discussed the complex issues of public health, gun violence, and responses to community trauma. Discussion highlighted the issue of secondary trauma, particularly among the many “helpers” who support victims and communities after mass casualty events, and what more we can and should do to support these helpers and the larger community.

This series includes posts from several of the panelists who participated in the discussion of “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence”:

  • Tuesday, June 13: Kim A. Snyder, the director and producer of Newtown, writes of the film’s genesis in the desire to tell the story not just of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting and their families, but of an entire community’s shared grief and recovery. She goes on to discuss how the experience of making and eventually sharing the film has inspired an impact campaign to address gun violence as a public health issue in the United States.
  • Wednesday, June 14: Wendy Parmet, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law, Director of the Center for Health Policy and Law, and Associate Dean for Interdisciplinary Education and Research Support at the Northeastern University School of Law, examines the question of gun violence and its impact on communities as a public health problem.
  • Thursday, June 15: Michelle Bosquet Enlow, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School and Associate in Psychology, Boston Children’s Hospital, describes the neurobiology of trauma, the impact of secondary or vicarious trauma on individuals and communities, and steps that organizations and communities can take to better support the full range of survivors after a mass casualty event.

The full panel discussion is available for viewing on the Petrie-Flom Center’s website.