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Four Ways to Deal with the Aftermath of Mass Shootings

In the span of thirteen hours on August 3 and 4, 2019, thirty people were killed in two separate mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. With nonstop coverage of these massacres on television and the internet, we ask ourselves, “How can I best respond to such senseless tragedies?” Drawing on recommendations from the American Psychological Association, practicing clinicians, and organizations focused on policy and community safety, here are four steps we can take as a start.

1. Talk with your children.

For those who are parents, it may not be obvious how much to say to your children, or how to respond to their questions or concerns. Psychiatrist Michael Scheeringa suggests that such discussions will be most useful if you’re trying to help your children process their own feelings and thoughts, rather than trying to make them feel better. (In the face of a tragedy like a school shooting, he says, it’s just not realistic to feel better right away.) And while it’s important as a parent to acknowledge your own distress, be wary of focusing solely on your own experience, and instead shift your attention back to your children.

The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests thinking through what you want to say to your children ahead of time, so you don’t need to operate on the fly. While it’s important to be responsive to your children at the moment, by planning ahead you will be in a better state of mind to guide the conversation in a way that will be helpful to them.

In addition, help your children find ways to express their concern and care for others, such as sending letters of appreciation to first responders. This can provide an important shift for children from being the passive recipients of an onslaught of horrific news, to being active agents of compassion toward others. In the face of senseless violence, they can affirm through their own actions that another alternative is possible.

2. Take care of yourself.

The APA also recommends taking a break yourself from the incessant news about the latest shootings. While it’s good to be informed, in the modern era of 24/7 cable news, it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

Take care of your health on this day too, as on any other day. That means getting exercise, eating well, and drinking in moderation if at all.

3. Don’t make mental illness a scapegoat for all gun violence.

It’s valid to recognize that psychological problems and predispositions can play a role in gun violence. For example, psychiatrist Ravi Chandra argues that grandiose narcissism and nihilism underlie the White Nationalismmanifested in the El Paso shooting.

At the same time, we need to be cautious about assuming that mass shooting can be reduced to mental illness. In some cases, there is a link between mental illness and shooting incidents, but these especially prominent examples may lead us to think this connection is always there, when a closer look at the evidence suggests otherwise. Always remember that gun violence occurs within a social and political context that extends far beyond the individual shooter.

4. Find a way to take some action, however small.

To help counter the feeling of hopeless that can easily arise in the face of these back-to-back shootings in El Paso and Dayton, find some concrete step you can take to make a difference. For example, this may mean getting involved in a local community organization, which would provide an opportunity to meet face-to-face with neighbors with shared concerns, rather than being isolated.

Or you could write or call your elected officials, asking them to take action in passing legislation to address gun violence. But what if you don’t know precisely what to ask your representatives to do? To start, you could draw on the recommendations of groups that have already identified specific steps that can be taken to improve community safety.

And remember, simply expressing yourself can be good for you. Psychologist James Pennebaker’s pioneering research shows that journaling about trauma can reduce stress and improve the immune system. Though you can’t guarantee that your letters to members of Congress will lead to change, the process of making your views known can be healthy in itself.

But don’t feel like you need to have all the answers to take action. You can call for change, even if you don’t have specific recommendations. Remember that sometimes perfectionism can stand in the way of taking the first step, and that simply doing something is a success in itself. In responding to an issue as overwhelming as mass shootings, for individuals who haven't been involved before, it’s enough simply to take a first step that’s “good enough.”

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