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Life after trauma: It takes a community

When a traumatic event strikes a community, there can be collective impact of pain, loss, and anxiety that trickles down and has lasting psychological effects.

When news that two bombs had been detonated at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 spread around the city—and soon, the world—the reaction was similar to that of any trauma.

Those who witnessed the explosion near the finish line on Boylston Street were in shock. There was widespread fear and at times, a sense of panic. Even those far from the event itself could feel the ripple effects of uncertainty, anxiety, and a collective sense of loss. The city entered a period of mourning and grief, with the nation joining them.

It is a story that has become all too familiar.

Four months before the Boston tragedy, 22 children were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. And on May 23, 2014, another spree of shooting and murder terrorized the community of Isla Vista, California. And while the details of these brutal crimes are all very different, they have one thing in common—they are traumatic, and the psychological impact spreads beyond the individual level to an entire community, sometimes even the nation at large.

Sharing the loss

Dr. Kristin Velazquez Kenefick, an associate professor in the Clinical Psychology department, says even though the effects of collective trauma are similar to individual trauma, they are often harder to diagnose and treat. They also require a wider spread, community approach. This is where she and other faculty members of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology have stepped into the national spotlight—often taking roles as panelists in the greater conversation about how to heal a community after trauma.

In some ways, the reaction is normal. What parent wouldn’t watch the news of Newtown and fear sending their own child to school?

“One of the things that makes it challenging is that not all the people have the same reaction. Not every person develops psychological distress from these events, but a good number of people do,” explains Dr. Kenefick, who appeared on Good Day Chicago in 2013 to discuss the psychological impact of the Boston Marathon tragedy on children. “One of the things that can develop is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is a lot in the media about veterans and PTSD from going to war, but this traumatic reaction can occur when someone is exposed to any traumatic event, whether it’s going to war, a car accident, or a severe medical diagnosis.”

Dr. Kenefick explains that even those who were not directly impacted by the Boston Marathon attack or the Sandy Hook shooting reported feeling psychological distress from it.

“Even though Newtown is in Connecticut, there were many parents here in Chicago—some people in my clinical practice—who felt the trauma of those children dying and being exposed to this horrific event,” she says, adding: “These events do affect the wider community, even if we are nowhere near the event from a geographical standpoint.”

In some ways, the reaction is normal. What parent wouldn’t watch the news of Newtown and fear sending their own child to school?

But beyond the specifics of that particular event, Dr. Kenefick says she has also noticed an increase in anxiety in our overall society—a malaise she believes could be tied to the 24/7 exposure to media and news from around the world.

“We are all bombarded in the media by traumatic material. If you turn on the radio or the 5 p.m. news, usually the headlines have to do with violence or crime or war,” she explains. “The ongoing exposure to this kind of material can take a toll on one’s psychological makeup.”

Working together

In November 2013, a week after a typhoon killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines, The Chicago School hosted an event to discuss how the psychological community can work together to help in relief efforts. Titled “Examining Ways We Respond to Natural Disasters and Tragedies,” the panel—organized in collaboration with the Center for Multicultural and Diversity Studies and the Department of Community Partnerships—was meant to spark a “school wide conversation” about how natural disasters and tragedies have affected us as individuals and as a community.

Dr. Drake Spaeth (Psy.D. ’02), a TCSPP graduate who is now an associate professor in the counseling department and coordinator for the trauma concentration, has found that the trauma caused to a community when a natural disaster strikes is slightly different from what is experienced when the traumatic event is caused by other human beings.

Dr. Spaeth believes significant trauma can impact a community in a similar way, damaging the spiritual core of that community.

“It’s interesting to me that human-perpetrated trauma is frequently experienced as more traumatic in some ways than natural disasters,” he says. “You don’t hear the ‘why me?’ as much as you do, say, when someone is attacked in their home.”

Dr. Spaeth says that every trauma class for his students begins with examining the causes and effects of traumatic stress, including how trauma manifests itself in what he calls “a bio-psycho-socio-culturo-spiritual” fashion.

As a therapist, he says it’s not uncommon to hear a victim describe the impact of trauma as having a “piece of their soul ripped out” or having one’s spirit out of sync with one’s body. “In indigenous cultures, the term ‘soul loss’ is something that describes that feeling, and a lot of times the healing work is ‘soul retrieval’ or ‘soul recovery’.” Dr. Spaeth believes significant trauma can impact a community in a similar way, damaging the spiritual core of that community.

“For me, seeing trauma as a spiritual wound and dealing with it that way is not something that our field traditionally does well, but it’s always kind of a missing factor in understanding and approaching it,” says Dr. Spaeth, explaining how this holistic view looks at the psyche of a community in the same way therapists might look at the psyche of an individual.

“When you talk about the psyche or a soul of a community that is impacted by trauma, especially a close-knit community, it’s interesting to see how it fragments in a manner similar to the soul or psyche of an individual person,” says Dr. Spaeth.

“What if the community fragments in response to trauma in a manner that is similar to the way an individual fragments and dissociates in response to a trauma?” he asks, adding: “The mental health profession has to be careful and not think this is only a psychological issue in the traditional sense and that we have the best solution. We have to be humble in realizing that we may not have all the answers about community trauma, that other perspectives have existed for a very long time, and that these wounds affect us on a spiritual level.”

Dr. Spaeth also believes the healing of the core fragmentation in spiritual terms is the retrieval of its soul. “Just as the individual is not the same after a trauma and works actively to discover who he or she is now, a community can also hopefully utilize a trauma as a springboard for growth and transformation.”

He says this is an effort that involves more than therapists. It can include community organizers, political officials, teachers, nurses, doctors, religious leaders, and other community members. One of the examples of this that he uses in his trauma classes at The Chicago School includes a documentary about the brutal 1998 murder of an African-American man in Jasper, Texas and how it impacted the community.

“When you talk about the psyche or a soul of a community that is impacted by trauma, especially a close-knit community, it’s interesting to see how it fragments in a manner similar to the soul or psyche of an individual person,” says Dr. Spaeth. “What is intriguing to me about the Jasper incident is that it involved three white men committing a heinous crime against an African-American man and his family—of a severity that seems particularly reprehensible in its viciousness for the present day. This small town in Texas is trying to wrap their minds and hearts around the fact that this happened in their community.”

Dr. Spaeth says the documentary chronicles the event and what the community did to attempt to heal from it—to bring together the dissociated pieces of the town’s “psyche” and move forward.

“If you take the town of Jasper and think of it in the way that you think about the psyche of a person, the recovery from that dissociation is evident in the way they endeavored to come together in human compassion and understanding and dialogue.

Power of healing

The Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute (NRCI) for Mental Health Education at The Chicago School held a community conference in June 2013 titled “Help, Hope, Healing After Trauma.”

“The impact of trauma is realized by every age group, race, ethnicity, socio-economic group, gender, community, and workforce,” says Jill Randall, former executive director at NRCI, a nonprofit organization at TCSPP that provides resources, hope, and community to those who struggle with the stigma of mental illness and those who support them. “The goal of this conference was to bring together families, professionals, and concerned community members so that they may engage in stimulating, helpful, and enlightening dialogue.”

While no traumatic event is the same and the impact on every person is individual—even when the event affects an entire community—she says the most important piece for therapists is how to lead the path to healing.

Marianne Cabrera, then a student and NRCI fellow involved in planning the conference, has a unique perspective on some of the trauma events sponsored by TCSPP during that time.

Her mother, Blesila Cabrera, lives in the Philippines. And while Blesila’s city of Manila was not directly impacted by the deadly 2013 typhoon, the two of them worked together to help with relief and rebuilding efforts.

In spite of this, Cabrera says she was amazed to see how many people stood together as a community and turned tragedy into triumph.

“My mom and I kind of worked on different sides,” explains Dr. Cabrera, who has since graduated from TCSPP’s Ph.D. Organizational Leadership program. “She’s on the ground so she was able to do her part in coordinating volunteers. Unfortunately, we did have friends who passed away from the typhoon.”

In spite of this, Dr. Cabrera says she was amazed to see how many people stood together as a community and turned tragedy into triumph.

“A lot of people, even though they’ve lost everything, haven’t lost hope. They realize it’s going to be a difficult and uphill battle. They don’t know what’s going to happen in their life but they know they are going to have one.”

Through her involvement in recovery and relief efforts, she has witnessed the steps a community takes to recover. The Philippines has its own unique cultural challenges in dealing with psychology and the need for therapy as part of that recovery.

“Psychology is something that’s not very prevalent in the Filipino culture. The Philippines is predominantly Catholic, so faith plays a big role in our healing and coping mechanisms,” she explains, adding that “people aren’t dealing with that just yet. The focus is on making sure they have a place to sleep; making sure they have food. The emotional and psychology side of it isn’t being dealt with yet. It will take a long time to get that settled, if ever. Then they’ll start looking inwardly.”

And that word is the silver lining of any trauma story—survival.

Dr. Cabrera says the NRCI trauma conference included a “community crisis” discussion relating to the typhoon as part of a larger discussion about healthy coping mechanisms for those who are experiencing PTSD.

Having a support system and access to mental health resources is one of the most important ingredients for trauma recovery, she adds.

“I think part of it is the stigma that you feel alone and you don’t want other people to know what you’re going through. But there’s a certain comfort level that comes with accepting help, and telling your story of survival.”

And that word is the silver lining of any trauma story—survival.

Through darkness, there is light. And that is where TCSPP and the mental health community at large are leading the way.

Lesson of hope

In 2007, Dr. Tiffany Masson, who became dean of the Chicago Campus in 2016, began co-developing a project for The Chicago School that would tell perhaps one of the greatest community trauma survival stories of our generation. Since 2010, the 12-Day Global HOPE (Healing Opportunities through Purposeful Engagement) Training Initiative has been taking TCSPP faculty and students to train mental health care workers in post-genocide Rwanda.

“One of the reasons why Rwanda is such an amazing country is the culture, resiliency of the people, and true value placed on family, community and helping one another,” says Dr. Masson, whose continuing work in Rwanda has since resulted in the development of a similar Global HOPE Training Initiative in Zambia and most recently, South Africa. “The people of Rwanda are determined and their outlook on life is so focused on building a stronger future for their community and country.”

Where there is healing, there is hope.

TCSPP graduate Dr. Priscilla Cheng, who worked on the Global HOPE Training Initiative in Rwanda as a Psy.D. student and completed a dissertation about women who experienced genocidal events in their childhood, says it was a transformational experience.

“What I came to recognize and realize is that in the midst of really dark places and really dark times, there is an incredible human spirit that is unimaginably bright,” says Dr. Cheng, who specializes in clinical psychology for children and adolescents and recently joined TCSPP as an adjunct faculty member. “Children, especially, are incredibly resilient. I think they just bring a curiosity that isn’t cloaked by history. They have this incredible tenacity about them, and they see joy in simple things. They don’t need a lot to find happiness. They still believe in magic sometimes. And that can be an incredibly healing thing too.”

Where there is healing, there is hope.

Perhaps that is the thing that unites all of these tragedies, all of this trauma we share as a society. It is a conversation The Chicago School is likely to continue for years to come.

*This article, originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of INSIGHT magazine, was updated in October 2016.


Sherry Thomas


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