SHU Presents First In Its “Reflecting On Sandy Hook” Series: Trauma and Mental Illness

David Johnson of the Post-Traumatic Stress Center asks questions of the crowd during first part of the "Reflecting on Sandy Hook" series entitled "Trauma and Mental Health."

News Story: March 1, 2013

Sacred Heart University’s Human Journey Colloquia Series recently presented the first of its four-part series, “Reflecting on Sandy Hook.”  The first discussion was an in-depth examination of the causes and effects of trauma and mental illness. Professor Michelle Loris introduced David Johnson and Hadar Lubin from the Post-Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven in front of a standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty, staff and members of the local community.

In her opening remarks, Loris affirmed the importance of reflecting on the Sandy Hook tragedy. “We developed these colloquia to give our university community an opportunity to come together to process, reflect and discuss the horrific tragedy that occurred,” she said. The four discussions cover issues that overlap, are complex and may even leave unanswered questions, she said. The first focused on two important issues: the impact of trauma, both for the individual and community, and the relationship between mental health and violence.

Lubin opened her remarks by expressing her desire to shed light on an area that is exceptionally dark for society. These situations often leave us with more questions than answers, she said. However it is important to look at the relationship between the individual and the community as we focus on trauma itself.

During the discussion, Lubin discussed the vertical and horizontal effects as they pertain to trauma. Vertical effects focus on the inward effect of the individual. This includes the relational, behavioral, physical, psychosocial and emotional effects. Horizontal refers to how the individual reflects this onto society. This is a movement from the individual to family, from family to the community and finally from the community to society. She also talked about the intersecting regions of trauma and its net effect.

“Whenever a trauma occurs in someone’s life, we can predict that the trauma will continue to reverberate throughout that person’s lifespan. It will change in the way it expresses itself as we change; however it is a footprint of the person’s experience and psyche. It will continue to be visible throughout the person’s life,” she said.

Lubin concluded by having her audience take a close look at the multitude of perspectives resulting from a trauma. As this pertains to Sandy Hook, she noted that we can look at the experience from the classroom and school to the first responders, parents and family members, local community and all the way to society as a whole. 

Johnson engaged the audience by raising questions meant to challenge on many levels. He raised vexing issues regarding the causes and link between mental illness and violence. He also spoke on the complexities of preventing such acts of violence.

“People are working day and night to figure out why this happened. Society is going to take action to prevent something like this from happening again. However, you have to make sure you know the cause to make sure the action addresses that cause,” Johnson said.

He offered insight into the models of violent acts and mental illness and how we view violence overall as a society. He discussed society’s socially sanctioned forms of violence as well as the unsanctioned, along with mass shootings and gun-related deaths in the United States. He concluded that the preventive actions we take often are reactions based on fear. However these fear-driven actions may not actually reduce risk, he said.

“What we do in society when we are afraid of something is we try and be protective and we come up with a major way of stopping everything. As a result of Sandy Hook, action will be taken that contains our fear, whether or not it reduces the risk,” he said. 

Leaving their audience in a reflective state and raising many new questions, Lubin and Johnson challenged listeners not only to identify the issues, but to take a holistic view of them. They offered thoughts on how society begins to move forward following violent mass tragedies and challenged those gathered to question the causes of such violence.