Trauma Surrounds Us: Time to Deal

Trauma Surrounds Us: Time to Deal

Karen Gross 02/05/2019 4

It is clear to me, particularly in light of the most recent and tragic shooting on a campus -- UNC-Charlotte -- that we need to do more than provide improved security and early detection of threats, although we surely need to do that. We need to address trauma. This is suggested in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today. The Chronicle piece notes trauma preparedness but also notes the effects of trauma post event and its wave-like nature, recurring with new triggers. Valuable observations and the link here.

In short, we need to deal with trauma before and after traumatic events occur because they are not disappearing. We need to become more than trauma informed. We need to become trauma trained and trauma skilled. 

I want to take these ideas an expand on them a bit here and suggest how some types of initiatives can (and should I might add) be thought about and perhaps implemented at UNC-Charlotte and elsewhere. An article is hardly sufficient for addressing these pre and post trauma issues in a fulsome way; indeed, I have a forthcoming book on this now titled GenTt Goes to School (with the Tt being explained below). Sadly, it is needed. But, now seems like a good time to at least bring up some ideas in the hope that they will encourage new conversations and programs and initiatives.

Start here. College students do not come to us with a blank slate (no students do at any institution at any level by-the-by including early childhood programs). Some -- perhaps even a goodly number of -- college and university students will have experienced trauma before. That could be Big T trauma (as it is known) like storms, fires or shootings) or small t trauma (as it is known) like familial dysfunction, abuse, food scarcity, homelessness, parental addiction, familial imprisonment, death or major health issues. So, a school shooting is not the first "trauma" experience. A new trauma, like a campus shooting, serves as a "trigger" (an ironic term actually here).

That means we need to be prepared for trauma's new and older impacts. It is now enough to deal with the present; one has to deal with the past and consider the future. 

Second, if there has been pre-event training, that training itself can be a trigger (for the reasons described above among others) and the quality of the training matters. Training for disaster is not a cost-free, emotion free experience. And, we often bring in outsiders to do the training (post-event too) and these individuals may not know campus culture, the nature of the student population and the previous experiences on and off campus (suicides, local disasters, disasters in students' home locations). 

Add to that that when we bring psychiatrists and psychologists on campus post-event, not all are actually experienced in dealing with trauma of the sort to which they are responding; if you have never visited or dealt with a school population post shooting or post terrorism or post detention of children or post hurricane, it is hard to have a real sense of how trauma plays out in real time with real people and real collateral damage. 

The above points suggest that how and when we do trauma training and of whom (as well as by whom) should be a matter that is carefully thought through. After a shooting is not the optimal time to start thinking about trauma responsiveness, although it is never too late too late to address traumatic events. Indeed, I was recently at a school where the shooting occurred three months ago -- and it was not too late to work on trauma issues; they don't just disappear. And, add to all this that there is secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, that affects others near and far, 

There is, by way of example, one level of trauma for the students and faculty in the classroom where the recent shooting at UNC-Charlotte took place. There is also trauma for those who knew the individuals who died or were injured. Others on campus, not there directly or not tied to a student, can still experience the trauma as can other professors and counselors and student life personnel helping the students, faculty and families affected.

This trauma stuff is complex and layered. 

Some concrete suggestions to ponder for now and as an initial step:

A. There needs to be trauma training in colleges and universities of the non-student population: professors, staff, administrators, coaches, among others. This is not the same training as is given to students. This training has to include vicarious trauma impacts; how to deal with families affected (including one's own); how to deal with social media as well as other media. Assessment of the upcoming events, timing of exams, places for congregating all need re-evaluation; if classes are still in session, how do they re-start (not just when but what does one say and do in that first class back).... the list is long and this is just the starter list. 

In the instance of UNC-Charlotte, there is a different issue: many students are finishing their semester (taking exams) and some are graduating. How one deals with these issues must be addressed -- everything from students who have still to take exams to how to deal with these issues at Commencement. How will the shooting be handled there? Will grades count? Can courses be converted to pass/fail options? Can exams be deferred?

I have been struck by the absence of attention to how trauma affects commencement generally and more particularly in the context of institutions that are closing -- a trauma of another sort. Commencement for an institution that is ceasing to exist requires special thought and attention. And if the institution just might stay open, that too needs to be addressed. I recently learned that the president of Mt. Ida, which closed, absented himself from the final Commencement because his presence would have detracted from the focus on the graduates and their families. This president was seeing that his presence would have worsened the situation -- made people angry and stirred the trauma pot. Would that other presidents were that trauma aware and trauma sensitive.

B. Existing students need to be trauma trained and sensitized -- so they are aware of trauma symptomology in themselves and in others. Seeing someone who has been traumatized can and often does change their behavior which can be bi-phasic. And, students need to know where to go when they or someone they know is experiencing difficulty. After the trauma, the students need access to many kinds of services and the difficulty is that not all students will experience trauma in the same way, on the same timeline. Some students may initially deny the effects and say: I am over it. Others will become isolated. Others will be unable to go to class or take exams. Some will have relationship issues. They can all learn how to tone down their autonomic nervous systems which can be on high alert.

In the case of UNC-Charlotte, I wonder if some students may not want to leave campus even after the semester is over. They may want to be with friends, in the community where the shooting occurred. They may want to "process in place." The University, then, has to rethink issues like when dorms must be vacated and where on campus can students congregate and what personnel can be deployed to assist. Maybe UNC-Charlotte needs to keep those students who want to stay on campus there -- with trained personnel -- even after semester's end. Distance is not a traumatized person's friend.

Within this past week, there was a fire at Bennington College and I was struck by their quick institutional response. They used their twitter feed and Facebook page to get to students quickly to share what was happening. They had already put in place plans for where classes would be held and they had counseling services in place. Students were alerted to all these adjustments and offerings within minutes it seemed. Brava and bravo to their leadership. Stability reined in the midst of a crisis. Students could I am sure sense that.

Bottom line here: trauma brings up many issues, a host of which can be thought about in advance and others of which may be unique to an event. Here is what is true: trauma has a profound impact on a community and given its prevalence, we would be wise to dedicate more time and attention to how we address it -- pre and post event. And, trauma does not disappear. We learn to navigate its presence in our lives but make no mistake about this: trauma does not disappear like a cold or the flu. It is with us. Forever. The real question is how we integrate it well and thoughtfully into our lives on a go-forward basis. 

That's no small challenge.  

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  • Jennifer Dinsmore

    Thank you so much for making this!!

  • Robert Trill

    I really appreciate the care that went into making this article.

  • Mandy Tagg

    Thank you for shedding light on trauma issues that usually go ignored and under-acknowledged.

  • Stephen McConville

    Well said. Excellent interpretation of the theme.

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


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