This may not be my most eloquent post. It is so interesting to me because when I started my blog, I had a whole list of mental health topics I planned to write about that I haven’t even been able to address because the world keeps lighting itself on fire and I feel called to write more about my response to that than about the topics I planned. As I sit here today, my brain is moving faster than my ability to put words to my thoughts, but I felt a strong call to put these words out there. So, here goes.
Here I am. I am faced with another day of talking to my clients about another mass shooting tragedy in our country and even more specifically one in which the lives of young children were cut far too short. Living in CT and being a therapist during the Sandy Hook shooting was an experience that I could never have imagined when I sat in my grad school classes. And here I am again, almost 10 years and countless mass shootings later, trying to help my clients make sense out of something so senseless, trying to help them to work through their fear, sadness, grief, anger, and unavoidable vicarious trauma.
Fear. Days like this are filled with me holding fear for my clients. I hold the fear of my young clients, as they wonder if it will be their turn to have their lives threatened or taken away when they find out about kids like them being murdered in classrooms just like theirs. They process through emotional shifts that occur when the energy in their schools and classrooms change and as their fear intertwines with the fear of their classmates and teachers. I hold the terror of parents wondering how they can possibly send their babies to school when all they want to do is lock them in their homes and hug them tight. I also hold the fear for my clients who are teachers. Those wonderful people who had no idea that their job that was once about educating and growing the minds of children, making them feel safe and loved, would now be one in which they have to put their lives on the line as they fulfill their lifelong calling. I hold fear for my clients with no connections to schools but fears about what our society is becoming, about how no place feels safe anymore. Each shooting adds another place to the endless list of places we now have to watch our backs and our brains and bodies are not equipped for the weight and intensity of the stress that this is having on us all.
Sadness. Sadness is inevitable for anyone who has the capacity to feel empathy. If we stopped feeling sadness on days like today, we lose our humanity. I know for me personally, I push myself to watch the news on days like today because I do not want to lose mine. I do not want to accept that this is our new normal and I don’t want to allow myself to believe that this is what is to be expected and just move on with my day.
Grief. The grief we feel in situations like today is complicated in a way like no other. We grieve for the lives that were lost and the futures that will never happen. We also grieve for the death of others’ humanity as they lack the expected emotional and actionable response to this kind of domestic terrorism. We grieve for the normalcy that once was. I am part of the generation before the columbine generation. I was finishing my first year of high school when columbine happened and I remember how emotional it was, but it never created fear in me that it could happen in my school. But now, children of 2022 live in this fear every day. I grieve for the loss of what childhood was and the loss of the innocence that this generation of children could never comprehend.
Anger. I am angry. My clients are angry. How have we become a country in which we send children to schools where they can no longer feel safe? How have we possibly become a country in which being a teacher is a job in which you have to fear for your life? We feel this anger because the sadness and the fear are so overwhelming, we need to distract ourselves from it. The anger is less vulnerable, its more demonstrative. We hope that the anger will somehow drive change, even though it never does. The anger drives us to ask the people who have the power to do something to do just that and we then get angrier when nothing changes, when the next shooting happens. We feel the anger about the hypocrisy of politicians fighting to take rights away from women to protect the lives of unborn children while all they do in response to the babies who are already here being shot in their classrooms is send their “thoughts and prayers”. We feel angry because individuals care more about their financial bottom lines than the lives of children they claim to see as the important thing. We get angry because we see the hypocrisy of being pro-life as only being about pro some life, only pro birth. We feel angry because we feel powerless. We feel angry because nothing happens, nothing changes, and then we fear that nothing ever will.
And want to know what I say to my clients when they share all of this on a day like today? I say, “I know”. I say, “I can’t imagine how you felt dropping your child off today, that must have been terrifying.” I tell them I understand their feelings, their emotions, their visceral response to this atrocity that keeps happening. I normalize their feelings because let’s be honest, it would be more shocking if they weren’t filled with all these deep feelings after something like this happens. I can’t tell them not to be afraid. I can’t help them to find more rational thoughts and feelings to reduce their anxiety, stress, or sadness because what they are feeling is rational, what they are going through is expected. I feel so helpless in my ability to help people which is the very basic foundation of what I am trained to do. I want to tell them that maybe now, maybe this shooting, this time, things will change. I want to believe that somehow, some way, we will find a path out of this. But I can’t do any of that. We can’t do that. We must sit in these feelings. We must force ourselves to feel uncomfortable because without that discomfort, things truly will never change.
I also know what is going to happen next if this shooting follows the scripts of the shootings in the past. Somehow it will be pinned on mental illness. This lights an angry fire in me that is indescribable. Not only does this villainize mental health issues and those who are struggling, but it minimizes the actual issue at hand. Having mental health struggles does not equate to an excuse for something like this. Additionally, as a mental health professional, unless a client tells me specifically that they want to kill a specific person or themselves, I can do nothing if I think someone is exhibiting worrisome thoughts or behaviors so therefore, we cannot be that worried about how mental health and these shootings are woven together. We are doing so much work to destigmatize mental health struggles in our country and then something like this happens and we undo all that hard work by allowing it to be an excuse or an explanation for these atrocities. Instead, I want to focus on how this is affecting the mental health of our society, what this is going to do to the mental health of these children, of all children, of parents, teachers, of those with empathy, of the people who put life before all else.
So, I am going to challenge you all to not allow yourself to fall into the trap of just accepting that this individual was mentally ill. Being mentally ill does not give anyone an allowance to inflict terror on our country. These acts come from hate and are born in hate. Many people want to create a society, a country that normalizes and thrives off hate and then allows hate to be considered a mental health issue when it fits into the narrative that places blame outside of themselves. You can tell me all about your fight for the right to bear arms, but I will also tell you about my fight to save lives and I will keep fighting each day, I will keep speaking truth for myself and for those whose voices have been silenced.
I have been practicing therapy for 15 years and have worked with countless individuals, families and couples. While I do not want to claim to be an "expert" on all things therapy or life (because I always believe that there is room to grow and learn) I have noticed throughout my time connecting with my clients that similar struggles and repetitive patterns present themselves that affect how clients experience and see life. I wanted to take this experience with my clients and the knowledge I have gained and share it here, so that maybe it can touch others lives the way it has helped my clients.