Is witnessing the news of the attacks in Orlando a form of trauma?
The morning of June 12, many of us woke up to the traumatic news of the horrific attacks at Pulse nightclub in Orlando that left 49 LGBT-identified people dead and injured over 50 more. Like many, I watched Anderson Cooper cry while reading the names of these young people who lost their lives. I also watched interviews with the others who managed to escape but saw their best friends killed in front of them.
In my NYC therapy practice, the responses to the Orlando shootings ran the gauntlet–some were intensely affected, others felt numb. Many of my LGBT patients had a particularly strong reaction to the Orlando attacks, which raised associations to their own histories of feeling abused and under threat. The queer community has experienced–collectively and as a collection of individuals–a significant amount of threats to their safety whether verbal or physical. Many LGBT people, particularly people of color, live in fear of their vulnerability to violence even in a progressive city like New York.
Are our experiences watching the news or reading the headlines about the Orlando shootings a form of trauma? While in no way comparing our experiences with those who were at Pulse or who had friends, family members or children involved, I think there is a benefit to understanding our experiences as trauma too. Even knowing the lingo about semi-automatic weapons and SWAT team protocols comes with trauma.
There is a debate about the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) originating from a more rigid institutional camp who believe PTSD is over-diagnosed, which minimizes the suffering of those with “real” symptoms. Both formally and anecdotally, the world–therapists, sociologists and the media–dramatically underappreciates how much trauma exists. I treat many patients who don’t identify themselves as having suffered a trauma. Through our work, we discover experiences they’ve been through that I would like to be able to call trauma. I think there’s a value to identifying and validating a wide range of experiences as trauma.
Even if we understand our experiences of national tragedies such as the Orlando shootings as trauma, the question remains: how do we deal with this experience both personally and collectively?
People often build communities around their shared experiences with trauma. In New York, we saw this firsthand after September 11 when firehouses became places to congregate and grieve with neighbors. Similarly, the LGBT community has done a great job of building a community, galvanized to a degree before but certainly strengthened during the HIV/AIDS pandemic. With LGBT community centers that offer mental health services, healthcare organizations, churches with a LGBT focus and other organizations, the LGBT community serves and will continue to serve as a space for mourning and support through the Orlando tragedy.
For me, I made a point with my colleagues to say, “Hey, I don’t know what we need to say, but this is a major event.” Even though we need to connect emotionally, we can still be susceptible to forgetting that this is a trauma we experienced. I encourage others to talk with your coworkers. Make a point of having a conversation and don’t get caught up in not knowing the right thing to say. Just say, “Maybe we should talk about this. We can hang signs, send an email and have a brown bag lunch.” I’m also a believer that charity–a blood drive or donation–can be a great opportunity for people to say this affects us.
Talk to your friends and neighbors. Talk to your children, especially if they’re older and you know they’ve been exposed to these events. Go for a walk with your spouse or partner and acknowledge that this has been on your mind. The attack in Orlando–like many other mass acts of violence–is a trauma that happened to all of us.