April 15, 2016, by Editor

After Columbine: Learning to rebuild our lives

Dr Carolyn Mears, whose son was a survivor of the Columbine High School shootings on 20 April 1999, will be speaking at the launch of The University of Nottingham’s Criminal Justice Network on Tuesday 3rd May. The event is free and open to all.

Here she recounts how the experiences of families and the community following this appalling tragedy have informed her world-renowned research and work in support of those affected by traumatic events.

In my peaceful community just west of Denver, Colorado, we will soon mark the 17th anniversary of one of the deadliest school shootings in history. On 20 April 1999, two suicidal, rage-filled students launched a deadly assault on Columbine High School. With an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons and a variety of bombs, they killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 23 others. Then, growing bored with the carnage, they returned to the school library and committed suicide.

My younger son was a sophomore at Columbine then, and at the time of the attack, he had just finished doing his homework in the library and gone downstairs for lunch. He and his friends were settling in to their table when the shooting started.

Little did he know that the friends he had been sitting with in the library were soon to be killed, or that he would spend over three hours hiding with 15 others in a tiny closet, listening to gunfire and screams, praying they would survive. He was unaware, too, that a close childhood friend, Dylan Klebold, was one of the perpetrators of the massacre.

From the moment that the first round was fired—a mere heartbeat of time—the world as we knew it in Columbine ceased to be. All of our expectations and assumptions about what constituted reality were shattered beyond repair—no one had ever imagined that such deadly violence, rage, and devastation would erupt in our little community.

For months afterward—years, actually—we were asked if we were “over it yet” and “back to normal”. We would simply shake our head, knowing that there’s no getting over it, and certainly no going back.

The challenge of surviving a traumatic event quickly becomes the challenge of surviving the aftermath. After a trauma, what used to feel normal doesn’t exist anymore. How could it? Someone who has been victimised and overpowered by circumstance will view the world in a new and very different way.

Trauma is an individual’s response to what is perceived as life-threatening or life-challenging. It’s that sense of sudden change, vulnerability, and being a victim to an overwhelming force. Trauma can also be experienced vicariously by witnessing the trauma of loved ones or observing a catastrophic event in which we identify with the victims.

In Columbine, we were all changed on 20 April; perhaps in some measure, this was true across the world. I was once giving a speech in Australia and shared a Columbine story with a group of researchers. After my presentation, a gentleman from Nigeria quietly approached and wanted to talk. He told me he didn’t want his children to find out that such an attack could happen at a school because, “I want them to think there’s one safe place in the world”.

In the years since 1999, many events have reminded us that there really is no truly safe place. Traumatic loss isn’t limited to school shootings, and it isn’t confined to someone else’s community. Trauma is universal. It accompanies natural disasters, terrorist attacks, fatal accidents, personal violation, the suicide of a friend or loved one, warfare, on and on.

As a Columbine graduate once told me: “We live in a broken world. Proof can be seen in an angry teenager with a pistol, or a religious radical with a bomb strapped to her chest, or a drunk sitting behind the wheel of an out-of-control car. It may be an abusive father or an unfaithful spouse or an unreasonable boss or a friend who betrays you. It may look like the death of a dream, the death of a loved one, the death of a pet.”

Experiencing a traumatic event is only the beginning, for it can affect all areas of function—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, cognitive, behavioral, interpersonal, and often financial. For someone who has suffered a trauma, memories of that event can trigger anxiety and discomfort even years afterward.

The standard advice “just don’t think about it” simply isn’t an option. The brain is doing its job and working to ensure survival. Having perceived input that was associated with an earlier threat, it triggers a response as if the threat is real and imminent. Actually, a trauma response is very healthy, normal, and life-sustaining; however, without resolution, it can seriously impact on every aspect of our lives and wellbeing.

Following traumatic experience, the task is to learn to live again, to find joy again, to return to the ordinary ebb and flow of days in spite of being aware that the world is a risky place — that the unthinkable has happened. Surviving survival is not easy work, but with increased understanding of trauma and attending to needs, most victims reclaim their lives and build positive futures.

My work focuses on helping people to understand the long-term effects of trauma, the causes and prevalence of traumatic stress response, and how lives can be rebuilt in the aftermath. A wider understanding of trauma can help communities and individuals better prepare to meet the needs that will be faced. In fact, many of the resources and practices that promote positive recovery can help build resilience in advance of an event.

On 3 May, I will be participating in the launch of The University of Nottingham’s Criminal Justice Network. I welcome this opportunity to join in a conversation about planning for community wellbeing and the implications for educators, counsellors, criminal justice professionals, and the public at large.

Dr Mears will speak on Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma at the launch of the Criminal Justice Network on 3 May at Jubilee Campus. The event is an opportunity to find out about the University’s expertise in research and teaching on criminal justice, and our partnerships with organisations such as the police, security services, courts, prisons and probation services.

This free event runs 11.30am-2pm and lunch is provided. Booking is essential – register your place online

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