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Dealing with trauma like WMAR standoff [Letter]

12:45 PM EDT, May 15, 2014

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There is no way to overestimate the fear felt by WMAR staff members recently when they experienced what could have seemed to be a terrorist attack ("Man is held after standoff at WMAR," May 14). News outlets cover trauma all the time, and it can never be far from their minds. The live broadcast of the aftermath, extending well into the evening prime-time news hour, gave a vivid illustration of the impact of trauma even on those who may feel they are ready for it.

Long after it seemed certain that no one was injured and that the assailant was likely unarmed, a clearly upset newsman was, at times breathlessly, leading viewers around the damaged building. He repeated himself, leapt from subject to subject, focused on little details of the scene. Visitors arrived and were invited on the air to hug and talk, unfiltered, about their traumatic feelings. The images flickered, tipped and sometimes went black. It was a good example of what it looks like when we say that people seem to be "in shock."

Traumatic events are never easy to manage in real time. However, this one, also involving neighboring schools and shutting down a major county road, offers an opportunity to think about what is known about how to help people in the wake of a disaster. Those principles apply to the media as well as to one-on-one clinical responses. It is critical to establish and demonstrate as soon as possible that someone is in charge. Without hiding or ignoring events, that person's job is to project capability — that problems can be addressed, that there is help so that people can cope. The goal is try to restore a sense of order and to help those involved, and those not involved but who could be frightened, start to manage their emotions and regain a feeling of safety. Traumatic feelings are contagious, but fortunately, so is effective coping.

Trauma is sadly common, and none of us are ever truly prepared. But the incident at WMAR could suggest ways in which local government and media might work together to craft responses that promote recovery and demonstrate what we would like to see happen whether those involved are a whole community or single individuals.

Dr. Larry Wissow, Baltimore

The writer is principal investigator with the Center for Mental Health and Pediatric Primary Care at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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