Being an Individual in a Society Where Mass Tragedies Occur

By Jill Bajorek, LCSW

In the wake of recent mass shootings, it’s become increasingly clear that we don’t really know how to react when this type of tragedy occurs. We want to process what happened in order to understand it, and many of us want to act to influence changes in a positive way. Unfortunately, sometimes the combination of the two leaves us feeling confused and helpless when the answers are not clear cut.

Let’s first acknowledge how hard it is to understand the mindset of someone who commits a violent act like a shooting because the vast majority of us are people who wouldn’t do something like that. In therapy, we often try to understand situations on a deeper level so we have more clarity, but comprehending something this horrific is difficult and even scary. We also hear the term “mental health” being associated with these events, which is confusing if we struggle with mental health issues ourselves. We might wonder, is anyone with mental health issues capable of doing that? That can breed fear and even resentment towards someone struggling with something like depression, for example. It’s important to know that not every mental health issue is the same, and that’s a pretty broad term that most times does not lead to someone doing something dangerous to others. A more appropriate descriptor or flag would be someone prone to violence. Do we know someone who doesn’t know how to access or express their feelings without turning to destructive physical means? Or do we find ourselves unusually fearful around someone because of their actions? While even those situations may not escalate to a mass tragedy, those are usually valid signals that something should be done to ensure safety.

This leads to an extremely important point to understand before jumping into action. We do things in an attempt to feel less helpless. However, it is not our fault if something does happen. Even with as much positive change as we try to initiate, the problem is the person who decides to kill. Sometimes going down a path of trying many different active responses leads to us feeling like we have control, and in a situation where someone decides to do something awful, we can’t control it. There has to be a balance between doing what we can to be safe and not carrying a heavy burden of responsibility.

In the midst of trying to comprehend a tragedy, many of us ask what we can do. There’s no one right answer to this and it can range from helping ourselves to wanting to help society on a larger scale. We can ensure safety around us by avoiding situations where we know we might get hurt. We can get to know our neighbors and local businesses to create a safe network, and be aware of something that seems out of the norm. We can donate to causes that benefit victims and increase access to mental health. Those are great starts, but ultimately we won’t be able to predict when something will happen. With taking as many precautions as possible, we still have to go day by day, hoping we’ve done enough in our circles to foster a safe environment.

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