COVER- Handling grief: Prognosis good for recovery
In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, UVA announced that it was offering extra group meetings and prepared its counselors for a wave of psychological appointments. Yet the wave hasn't come, and Russ Federman, director of counseling services at UVA's Elson Student Health Center, says that's actually a positive sign.
"In times like this, we naturally turn to close friends and loved ones," he explains. "You don't seek professional help because there isn't something wrong with you. You're hurting, and so is everyone else."
Another UVA psychologist, Dewey Cornell, is an expert in school shootings, and he says that feelings of stress, fear, and grief in the immediate aftermath are to be expected, even for people who didn't know anyone directly connected to the assault. For those who lost a friend or loved one, grieving may take longer, he says, although eventually most will recover.
Cornell, along with his colleague Peter Sheras and several other psychologists, posted a tip sheet for coping with the Tech tragedy at the American Psychological Association's website, apa.org.
Among the suggestions: talking to friends and family, trying to balance thoughts of the tragedy with happier thoughts, and taking a break from the steady stream of news coverage.
Some of the students who actually lived through the horrifying ordeal may suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Cornell says, if they don't sufficiently cope with their feelings of stress and grief now. Depression, anxiety attacks, sleep disturbances, even psychotic episodes can be part of the disorder, which gained notoriety following the Vietnam War.
Survivor's guilt is another issue some students may face, Cornell says, but he doubts it will occur for the majority of students, even those who saw classmates and faculty killed while they were spared.
The killings were "so clearly the act of a deranged individual," says Cornell, adding that he is more concerned about those who knew Cho before the attack and might believe they could have done something to stop him.
Those people may "feel very troubled and try to second-guess themselves," he says. "We can all go back and think of ways we could have stopped or prevented something, but we might be unreasonably harsh with ourselves."
Cornell says the long term prospect for recovery is good– even for those who were firsthand witnesses in classrooms. He cites Virginia Tech victim Liviu Librescu as an example of such recovery. Librescu was a Holocaust survivor who'd become a celebrated aeronautical engineer beloved by his colleagues and students. On April 16, Librescu died a hero at the age of 76 after he held the door shut against the gunman to give his students time to leap from a window to safety.
"Humans," Cornell says, "are remarkably resilient."