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Two women embrace in front of the concert venue where a mass shooting took place on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 2.

Healing for Vegas

Helping survivors of the violence in Vegas means also addressing their inevitable trauma.

The terrifying and heartbreaking mass shooting in Las Vegas has left many of us, once again, feeling helpless in the face of extraordinary pain. In our helplessness, we go to our different corners in search of answers and engage in the inevitable debates —over gun control, the definition of terrorism, and the implications of that label.

Those are all important discussions, but there’s another issue that too often gets overlooked in the wake of violence: the trauma of the survivors, and what they need to rebuild their lives.

This is bigger than just a question of “helping.” Americans are great at helping after a tragedy, especially after mass shootings, which focus our attention in ways that other kinds of violence don’t. We send blankets and diapers, we donate to charities, we hold food drives. But even that attention is fleeting.

The truth is that the cameras will go home and the hashtags will evolve with the next news cycle. But the people at that concert in Vegas, their families, and friends, will be saddled with a mountain of pain and, for too many, not nearly enough support to deal with it.

Some will still be unable to get through the night without hearing gunshots in their sleep six months from now. Some will stare at an empty chair every night during dinner for the rest of their lives. Some will lose their jobs or get divorced because they “can’t get over it.” Some will finally muster the will to seek counseling a year from now, or two years from now, only to learn that the services ran out because they didn’t use them in time.

The rest of us will either forget Vegas or remember it on anniversaries. But for thousands of people touched directly, the impact of that trauma will never end.

We most often think of trauma in relation to veterans. Thanks to the hard work of many advocates and survivors, there is now growing awareness that exposure to war can leave deep psychological wounds, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But trauma is not just the domain of war. Traumatic stress is a natural reaction to an event, or multiple events, that overwhelms our natural ability to cope.

Trauma can change a person’s brain. It can cause reactions from physical numbness to memory loss, nightmares to hyper-vigilance. Exposure to any kind of violence—mass shootings, single shootings, child abuse, sexual assault, and more—can cause traumatic stress or PTSD.

I’ve worked with hundreds of survivors of violence over the last decade. They have told me stories about how isolated they feel after a violent tragedy. Some of their friends, unsure what to say, avoid them and treat them as if they’re diseased. Others get tired of their grief and pull away. They get thrust into the media spotlight if it’s a high profile incident, or are ignored by the media altogether if it’s just an “ordinary” crime — both experiences can be re-traumatizing.

Survivors have shared with me how they feel used by prosecutors to get convictions, or by lawmakers with a political agenda. For the “wrong” kinds of victims or the “wrong” kinds of crimes, they get blamed for what happened to them— "she shouldn’t have had so much to drink; he shouldn’t have worn a hoodie.” The trauma, I’m told, can feel inescapable.

If we’re serious about supporting the survivors of Vegas, we would make sure every one of them has ongoing access to trauma and mental health services. We would ensure that those services were culturally appropriate and geographically accessible. We would support their financial and logistical needs while they rebuild their lives. We would respect their need for information, the desire some have for privacy and others for interaction. We would recognize there is no timeline for healing, or support.

That requires, in part, rebuilding our justice and public health systems. That means a robust investment in healing trauma through community-based healing programs that are culturally competent and accessible to everyone, no matter where they live or who they are or how long it took them to ask for help. Anyone who has experienced harm gets support, no questions asked.

The survivors of the Vegas shooting are at the very beginning of their healing journey. Our nation should mourn but we should also mobilize to make sure they have the resources they need. Let’s do right by the survivors in Las Vegas, and let’s learn from this tragedy how to treat trauma effectively everywhere it happens whenever it happens.

Shari Silberstein is the Executive Director of Equal Justice USA, a national organization working to transform the justice system by promoting trauma-informed responses to violence.