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Mental & Emotional Health

Emotional Recovery After Public Trauma

Horrific events like the shootings in a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin affect not only those directly or peripherally involved, but also many people who only hear about them on the news.

“Such events leave most of us feeling vulnerable, helpless, sad and anxious,” says Linda Ligenza, a consultant to the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. These killings, unlike those in war, happened in ordinary and familiar settings. This could have been me, we think.

But public traumas affect people who have had life-threatening brushes with random violence even more, as I was reminded by my friend, author Echo Garrett.

Almost 20 years ago, Echo was terrorized on a train by a man named Colin Ferguson, who threateningly harassed her. Ferguson turned out to be more than a harasser: Hewas later convicted of killing six people and injuring nineteen others on the Long Island Rail Road in Garden City, New York.

Although a confident and savvy city dweller, Echo was so frightened by the encounter with Ferguson, she went into premature labor the next day (at seven months pregnant). She tried three times to file a police report on Ferguson because she believed he was deranged enough to kill someone; but because he hadn’t actually touched her, police ignored her warnings.

When she read about his shooting spree months later, she was frightened, shocked, angry, and sick. Echo knew it could well have been her he shot on the day he had harassed her. It was even more painful to know the first person he shot was Amy Federici, a close friend of a friend, and to wonder if it could have been prevented if police had allowed Echo to file a complaint.

How did she cope? Echo had loved living in New York but was too fearful to stay. She moved from New York to the Atlanta area with her family. Happy, successful, and with grown children now, Echo made the tough transition to being well-adjusted. But the effects of her experience didn’t just go away; they still surface when she hears news in which someone was terrorized in a random act of violence.

“When we hear about the events that have occurred in Colorado or Wisconsin, it can be quite unsettling to those who have experienced a prior traumatic event either in childhood or adulthood,” notes Ligenza. These experiences have an indelible impact on the brain, and emotional, physical, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms may surface without a person ever realizing they are linked to a recent public trauma that has triggered their fear related to past events.