Therapists’ Lessons from Shooting Victims

Three Things I Learned from Working with the Aurora Theatre Shooting Victims

By Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

I remember the morning clearly. I had just gotten up, and it was early. I had been preparing for my morning run when I received a strange text from a friend of mine asking if I was okay. Confused, I responded, “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?” Then my friend sent over a link to a news article and asked, “Didn’t you see this?”

Clearly I hadn’t. Yet, as I read through the article, it seemed almost unreal. I lived across the street from the Aurora theatre. I could walk to it. I had, many times.

I frantically texted my younger brother. He also lived in Aurora, and we had discussed going to see The Dark Knight Rises – the very movie that James Holmes also chose – in that very theatre. Thankfully we had decided not to, but I wondered if perhaps he had gone with his wife anyway.

He texted right back. He was okay, but he too hadn’t seen the news.

When I walked in the door at the private practice where I counseled clients regularly, the office secretary informed me that likely, our office – and myself – would be getting calls from some of the people who had been in that theatre.

She was right. And in the next few weeks, I had the opportunity to work with some of the shooting victims. Here are three things I learned:

Counseling Victims of Mass Shootings

1. Traumatic Events Often Lead To A Tremendous Reverence For Life.

Perhaps one of the things that astounded me the most about every one of the victims that I worked with was that, even after what had been the most horrific experience of their lives, they expressed a profound sense of reverence for life. Some said things like, “I took way too many things in my life for granted,” “I didn’t appreciate the life I had, or the people in my life,” “Life is so precious, and we don’t realize how quickly it can be taken from us.” While they did struggle with feelings of guilt over the ones they had lost – and felt they should have done more to save – they also realized on a very deep level that lives were spared that day. Further, the experience shifted their perspectives about what is really important in life. One example is a woman who decided to pursue a different career, feeling like, “I don’t have any time to waste.”

2. Trauma Brings Out Our Innate Courage.

Initially my goal in working with the victims was simply to listen – to hear their stories without judgement, criticism, or even advice. I wanted to be a listening ear for whatever they needed to say. And I had no idea what to expect. But what I heard was story after story of tremendous strength. One man, who had been sitting right in front of one of my clients, dove across his seat to shield his young child from the gunfire. That man lost his life, but his child survived. Another man wrapped himself around his wife and pulled her under the seat. Thankfully, they both survived. The man’s best friend, however, who was huddled on top of them did not. There were numerous stories just like this of people sacrificing their lives to save others. And as I sat and listened to each one of these accounts, what emerged was the real story of courage that day.

3. Trauma Can Lead To Tremendous Growth.

There is one thing that can’t be argued about trauma – it forever changes us, and changes our lives. Early on, I had expected many of the victims to struggle mightily with flashbacks, an elevated stress response, feelings of hypervigilance, insomnia, and difficulty functioning. This is what I had learned in graduate school about trauma. Yet while there were some of these elements, there was something else. Something much more profound. I wasn’t aware of the term at the time, but what I experienced working with the victims of that theatre shooting is now known as post-traumatic growth. The idea is that it is because traumatic events fundamentally change our lives, we are forced to search for meaning in what has become of our lives. It is in that search that we come to better understand what is important to us, we become acutely aware of the fleeting nature of life, our perspectives on life change, and through the experience, we emerge stronger. I saw this in every single one of the people I worked with. And while the process was not easy – many coped with at times overwhelming feelings of sadness, grief, guilt, and anger – each one experienced a strength within themselves that they had no idea existed.

Claire was profoundly affected by working with the victims of this theatre shooting, and by each and every mass shooting since. Following the Vegas shooting, she decided to write an online CE course to help other therapists:

Counseling Victims of Mass ShootingsCounseling Victims of Mass Shootings is a 3-hour online continuing education (CE) course that gives clinicians the tools they need to help their clients process, heal, and grow following the trauma of a mass shooting.

Sadly, mass shootings are becoming more widespread and occurring with ever greater frequency, often leaving in their wake thousands of lives forever changed. As victims struggle to make sense of the horror they have witnessed, mental health providers struggle to know how best to help them. The question we all seem to ask is, “Why did this happen?”

This course will begin with a discussion about why clinicians need to know about mass shootings and how this information can help them in their work with clients. We will then look at the etiology of mass shootings, exploring topics such as effects of media exposure, our attitudes and biases regarding mass shooters, and recognizing the signs that we often fail to see.

We will answer the question of whether mental illness drives mass shootings. We will examine common first responses to mass shootings, including shock, disbelief, and moral injury, while also taking a look at the effects of media exposure of the victims of mass shootings.

Then, we will turn our attention to the more prolonged psychological effects of mass shootings, such as a critical questioning and reconsideration of lives, values, beliefs, and priorities, and the search for meaning in the upheaval left in the wake of horrific events. This course will introduce a topic called posttraumatic growth, and explore the ways in which events such as mass shootings, while causing tremendous amounts of psychological distress, can also lead to psychological growth. This discussion will include topics such a dialectical thinking, the shifting of fundamental life perspectives, the opening of new possibilities, and the importance of community. Lastly, we will look at the exercises that you, the clinician, can use in the field or office with clients to promote coping skills in dealing with such horrific events, and to inspire psychological growth, adaptation, and resilience in the wake of trauma. Course #31-09 | 2018 | 47 pages | 20 posttest questions

This online continuing education (CE/CEU) course for healthcare professionals is sponsored by:

Professional Development Resources is a nonprofit educational corporation 501(c)(3) organized in 1992. We are approved to sponsor continuing education by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA); the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR); the Alabama State Board of Occupational Therapy; the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy, Psychology & School Psychology, Dietetics & Nutrition, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and Occupational Therapy Practice; the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board and Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology; the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs; the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists and State Board of Social Worker Examiners; and are CE Broker compliant (all courses are reported within a few days of completion).

Target Audience: PsychologistsCounselorsSocial WorkersMarriage & Family Therapist (MFTs)Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs)Occupational Therapists (OTs)Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs)School Psychologists, and Teachers

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