By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc., SDL (He/Him)
This is an article I never wish I had to write, but with the high recurrence of mass shootings in the USA and pure inaction of the powers that be to do anything to stop them. For many people, mass shootings have become a normalized part of everyday life. The tragedy at Club Q violated the safe spaces we have carved out for us as part of the LGBTQ+ community. With the rise of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, rhetoric and fear mongering, LGBTQ+ bars, clubs, sports teams and other places serve an important function for us to live authentically and express ourselves openly.
Collective trauma is when people share an emotional reaction to a bad event and leads to people feeling powerless, alone, scared, and uncertain about the future. As a society, we’ve all experienced collective trauma when we’ve seen our communities affected by natural disasters, acts of terrorism, global pandemics and just about everything in between. Collective trauma can be viewed as a fractal measure of scale, that is self-similarity in the emotions involved regardless of size. It can be experienced by small few, say a sports team affected by the injury or death of their teammate, a large group such as a school that experienced a mass shooting, an entire city that has been partially burnt down by a wildfire, a social community that has experienced a mass shooting, a country that has been subject to a terrorist attack and even the entire planet hit by a global pandemic. Unfortunately, I write these out as examples of collective trauma I and many others have directly experienced. In this article, I am sharing some of my anecdotal experiences in this regard as well.
Now, I don’t mean for this all to come off as depressing, but when talking about collective trauma, the reality is that you have, am or will experience it yourself. As sport psychologists and sport leaders, you are also in a unique position to help your community of athletes, coaches, parents, and others to understand their emotions and them heal.
When a community experiences collective trauma, members will respond by self-organizing actions to create a positive and shared meaning by it. Most commonly this is scene with spontaneous memorials that include flowers, pictures, letters of love, messages of hope and other things to help honor the victims. Usually, these memorials emerge close to the site in which the traumatic event occurred and utilize surrounding resources, such as barricade fences, signs, and other things to help increase the visibility and access to the memorial.
Organize and encourage people to come together, acknowledge what happened and talk about their feelings.
One of the most important things that should be done as soon as possible, is to bring the community together and share with each other how this experience has affected us. In the wake of the Club Q tragedy, members of LGBTQ+ communities all over the country and world have come together to hold vigils, rallies and fundraisers. But it’s important that we come together as teammates, community groups and organizations.
Healing Collective Trauma Requires an Individual Touch
Communities are affected by trauma, but the individuals of the community each have their own emotional response to such an event, and everybody heals differently. Thus, helping to heal collective trauma means that we must be in touch with the people affected by it to help them deal with it on their terms. Taking time off, finding purpose again, practicing self-care techniques, even offering an ear to listen, a friendly face or simply a hug. The social connections we have with friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances are crucial for us to prevent feeling isolated, fight feelings of powerlessness, staying connected and working to support each other.
Look Out for Relapse and Signs of Mental Health Issues
People with pre-existing mental health conditions or substance use disorders, especially those recovering from addiction, may find themselves slipping again into old habits or struggling to maintain strength ad resiliency. Trauma causes emotional and psychological distress, that is normal, but it can be challenging for people who are recovering from such issues or are at higher risk of developing them. People may even have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which professional help should be sought.
Most people who experience trauma will heal from it in their own way, it just takes time. The most important thing is to be patient and let people heal at their pace. We humans are very resilient and capable to adapt. We can learn from each experience and allow our response to evolve so that we can help the healing process for ourselves and our communities.
Despite the tragedy, there were many heroes inside Club Q that night. People who, amidts the chaos, stepped forward to stop the shooter and subdued them until police arrived. For as much as we remember those we lost, we celebrate the heroes that night as well who helped stop further loss. As Mister Roger’s famously said, “when I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news. My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. ‘”
Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr