Helping Students Cope with Tragic Events

The entire campus community is involved when a tragedy occurs. All staff can play a role in helping one another to deal with the tragedy as well as to facilitate healing and recovery. Below are some thoughts and suggestions to guide you as you deal with students in class, in both formal and informal gatherings, and on an individual basis.

  • A crisis situation is one in which an individual's typical coping responses don't work or may be less effective than usual.
  • A person’s response to a crisis is very individualized. We must be careful not to judge one another's response, especially if it's different from our own.
  • The thoughts, feelings, and behaviors experienced may be in response to the event at hand as well as previous (and potentially unresolved) traumatic events from the past.
  • A sense of anxiety and panic is both typical and expected; this is a typical reaction to attempting to make sense of why such a tragedy occurred. We can help by allowing people to identify and discharge all the questions, fears, and uncertainties that are going through their heads. It's important to validate these concerns rather than talk people out of them. Remember that in crisis situations, some people may not respond in their usual rational way.
  • We can help people cope with crisis situations by engaging in a problem solving approach. This would include ascertaining the main issues and then going through a step-by-step process to identify possible solutions for resolving the problem. Also assist the person with identifying what they can do, helping them distinguish between what is within their control versus what is not.
  • It is often helpful for people to just be with one another during times of crises. Saying the "right" words isn't the most important thing, feeling connected to people close to you is more important. If you are comfortable doing so, you may want to share your own reactions, including your responses to similar situations.
  • Let students know the resources available on campus. These would include their faculty, especially academic advisors and departmental chairs; chaplains and other staff from the Interfaith Center; Residence Life staff, especially RDs and RAs; staff from Health & Counseling, particularly Counseling Services psychologists; other staff from the Division of Student and Campus Life; and finally, their fellow students.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that trauma and stress responses are normal reactions to abnormal situations. It is important to allow yourself and others permission to have your reactions (whatever they may be), to take care of yourself, and to ask for help as best as you can. Many people find it helpful to have information about what constitutes a typical reaction to trauma; some such reactions are described below:

Physiological and Emotional

  • Feelings of sadness, moodiness, more crying than usual
  • Feelings of numbness or detachment
  • Heightened anxiety or fear; fears about death of others, anxiety about future without the company of the one who died, fears of being alone
  • Irritability, restlessness, over excitability
  • Hyper vigilance, excessive fear that something will happen to you or others
  • "Survivor guilt" or feelings of self-blame that you’re alive
  • Mood swings; sudden changes in mood or intense reactions in response to minor triggers

Cognitive

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling confused, disoriented, and/or distracted
  • Difficulty making decisions that normally would be easy
  • Ruminating, especially about the death and dying

Physical

  • Headaches
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Fatigue, feeling slowed down

Behavioral

  • Hyperactivity or less activity than usual
  • Withdrawal, social isolation
  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia: inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, disrupted sleep, deep sadness upon awakening