ACA Blog

Deb Del Vecchio-Scully
Aug 06, 2012

When Bad Things Happen: Aurora, Penn State

When tragedy strikes we often look for answers to make sense of it. The newspapers have been filled with 'why' in response to the Aurora, CO shootings and the Penn State sexual abuse scandals. As counselors, we recognize this as the initial state of grief and despair fueled by painful shock and disbelief. In situations like these, the media often turns to the mental health field for insight into unspeakable acts. As a trauma specialist, I understand the long-term impact of the tragic acts that occurred at Penn State, Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and now Aurora. I cannot profess to understand the perpetuator’s acts, nor in my opinion, can any other mental health professional. We can speculate that perhaps a psychotic break occurred in the psyche of the shooter, or childhood abuses in the case of the Penn State perpetuator were factors. It is however speculation which is risky at best. A mentor of mine commented to me shortly following the Columbine shootings, 'no one wants to lose control'. This universal truth resonates with me but does little to explain the unexplainable.

As counselors, we know that prevention and early intervention are critical to create good outcomes. There were two letters to the editor printed in USA Today on July 24, 2012 that raise two areas for counselors and everyone for that matter to consider. The first letter focused on being more aware and vigilant of unusual, odd or bizarre warning signs and more importantly, to have the courage to report them. The 9/11 terrorists openly acknowledged their desire to learn to operate a plane, not to land or take-off. Wouldn't it be prudent to report something witnessed and risk embarrassment than to suffer from guilt and regret at remaining silent?

The second letter, written by a psychiatrist, emphasized the need for teaching empathy, tolerance and understanding to our children while embracing the disenfranchised members of our society supporting them to receive needed help. Further, I would add fostering and modeling compassion, resiliency, kindness and caring equally important.

As counselors, we must prepare ourselves for old and new traumatic memories surfacing in our practices just as we experienced last summer surrounding the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Having the Penn State sexual abuse scandal and the Aurora shootings prominently covered in the news simultaneously may serve as a catalyst for the re-experiencing of current and new clients trauma histories. We all have unique expertise and skills, and it is critical to honor our clinical strengths and limitations. Trauma-informed therapy is a unique, specialized and advanced blend of therapeutic training and skills. Without such training and expertise, therapy attempts could do much more harm than good.

Deb Del Vecchio-Scully is a counselor and writer who focuses on healing the mind, body and spirit. She specializes in PTSD, Chronic pain and mood disorders. For more information:

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