Accelerating Best Practices in Peer Support Around the World

Supporting Survivors of Traumatic Events

Six months after a shooting in Aurora, Colorado claimed the lives of 12 people, a tragic shooting took place in Newtown, Connecticut killing 26 people including 20 elementary school children inside their school.  In addition to the horrific loss of lives in these tragedies, survivors of these violent acts and the effected communities are left to cope with extreme trauma and feelings of grief.

Unfortunately while trauma and mental health have been heavily discussed in the aftermath of these tragedies, it is not limited to these horrific events. Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster” and may involve a single experience or a series of events that overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope with the emotions elicited by that experience. In some cases, physical trauma may lead to psychological trauma, as with accidents, abuse, and sexual assault. Additionally, psychological trauma may also be caused by witnessing violence, verbal and emotional abuse, and neglect.

According to the National Center for PTSD the impact of trauma may be particularly damaging to youth.  The National Survey of Adolescents, a representative sample of 4,023 American youth aged 12 to 17, estimated that 17.4% had experienced a serious physical assault and 8.1% a sexual assault; 39.4% had witnessed one or more incidents of serious interpersonal violence. The National Comorbidity Survey found that 60.7% of American males and 51.2% of females aged 15-24 reported exposures to one or more traumatic events. Children that experience trauma have higher risks of developing psychological, behavioral, and emotional problems, including but not limited to substance abuse, depression and anxiety disorders, and PTSD.

For the children of Sandy Hook, their parents, and all those affected by the recent shooting, addressing their trauma is an important part of the healing process. The APA provides the following guidelines for parents that are trying to help their children manage distress after a shooting: 1) Talk with your child, 2) Keep home a safe place, 3) Watch for signs of stress, fear, or anxiety, 4) Limit media exposure, and 5) Take care of yourself. Additionally, the National Child Traumatic Stress Networkmay be a helpful resource to learn more about child traumatic stress.

The following video clips may be helpful for parents and teachers that are supporting children after traumatic events.


Trauma, Brain and Relationship: Helping Children Heal

Section Three: The Many Faces of Trauma


Trauma, Brain and Relationship: Helping Children Heal

Section Five: Healing Trauma


Trauma, Brain and Relationship: Helping Children Heal

Section Six: You Make the Difference


Healing Stress and Trauma: Safety, Boundaries


Healing Stress and Trauma: Community at School


Additionally Social support is crucial in providing the emotional and practical assistance for those dealing with tragedies and trauma. However, effective social support can take on different forms for different people. Among adolescents, peer support is emerging as an important protective factor against PTSD in the wake of traumatic events. In this developmental stage, adolescents may rely on peers rather than family to decrease isolation and cope with stress. For adult survivors, the APA offers these helpful tips on managing traumatic stress. This guide emphasizes the importance of communication, asking for support, and seeking out peer support groups. SAMHSA offers the most comprehensive listing of resources for coping with violence and traumatic events. Finally, the Trauma Intervention Programs Inc provides a series of tips for helping the emotionally injured after tragedy strikes including reaching out physically, reaching out emotionally, not overlooking quiet survivors, protecting and reassuring survivors.

Peer and social support can be very important parts of healthy recovery for individuals that have suffered through a traumatic event. When combined with professional resources referenced this can improve the chances of healthy coping. It should be noted that although friends and neighbors can provide valuable emotional first aid and support, mental health professionals caution that inappropriate counseling has the potential to exacerbate symptoms or interfere with the healing process. Peer supporters also need to protect themselves from experiencing vicarious trauma after interacting with a survivor. These concerns all point to the need for specialized training for peer supporters, linking survivors to professionals when needed, and the importance of providing ongoing, flexible support. By combining best practice peer and social support with professional services survivors of traumatic events may have the opportunity to benefit from the many recovery resources available while working towards recovery.

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