Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Ottawa Shooting


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Many people were directly impacted by the events in Ottawa last week – most affected, of course, was the victim’s family, the perpetrator’s loved ones, the good samaritans who rushed to Cpl Nathan Cirillo’s help, the paramedics and police officers who responded to the scene, all of the individuals inside the Parliament building who witnessed the gun fight, and everyone else who was on the Hill: those who spent hours in lockdown, the tourists and passersby who witnessed the attack, the media and a whole host of other people I am probably forgetting. Some of these individuals were directly exposed to a trauma while others experienced a more indirect form of traumatic exposure.

As one moves away from the epicentre of the tragedy, we can list millions of other individuals who were deeply affected by the shooting – Ottawa citizens, Canadian viewers who watched it on the news and of course the global community.  These folks were not exposed to direct trauma, but were potentially secondarily traumatized all the same: If you watched some of the raw media footage which was shown on our TV screens minutes after the shooting, you may have noticed some very graphic, rather disturbing images centered around the victim. I noticed that as the day progressed, while the footage was being shown in a continuous loop, it was slightly altered to mask some of the more disturbing elements of the scene.  (You may not have noticed that, but I have a homing device for trauma exposure in the public sphere and how it’s done, call it my own personal mission and obsession). However, with YouTube, and dozens of passersby able to film the scene with their smart phones, it won’t be hard to see that raw footage somewhere on the net, if one looks hard enough. I am not sure why the media outlets decided to stop showing the more graphic details – was it out of respect for the victim’s family? A decision to spare the viewers? Maybe a bit of both, and that’s a good thing. Too bad it doesn’t happen more often.

Thankfully, our degree of understanding of traumatic stress has significantly improved over the past decade – most people are now fairly familiar with the concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and have no difficulty understanding that those at the centre of a tragic event like the Ottawa shooting might be significantly affected for weeks and perhaps months to come. We also know that some individuals are more vulnerable to traumatic stressors and may develop more significant psychological distress as a result of this event: the severity of the reaction is determined by a prior trauma history, a history of mental illness or addiction, a person’s personality and coping styles, whether or not they were able to seek good quality debriefing afterwards, the quality of their social supports and several other factors.

One thing is clear – when we experience a traumatic event, many of us have a strong need to talk about it with others. This is a very good thing. Talk, write, share with your loved ones, with your work colleagues and your friends. This urge to connect and tell our story can also happen to us during very intense happy events – talk to any new mother about her birth story hours or days after the delivery, and she will give you the play-by-play of each cube of ice she chewed on and what centimetres of dilation she was at. Talk to her again a year later, and she will likely tell you, in a nutshell, that “it hurt like hell and took 26 hours” but unless it was a very traumatic birth, she will no longer need to share minute by minute account of what happened. This is completely normal. With traumatic events that involve a criminal act, the need to share and the trauma experienced may be more potent. An “act of God” is very different from one human being’s deliberate decision to cause harm to others, even if the perpetrator is deeply psychologically troubled. So let’s talk about it, absolutely.

However, we should take care to share what is necessary vs “all the gory details” unless those are extremely central to our experience. After 9/11, the Globe and Mail (and many other news outlets) shared some incredibly graphic photos that I will never be able to remove from my mind – I was quite traumatized by those images,  and there were not necessary – I did not need to view these to be compassionate and profoundly distressed by the collapse of the Twin Towers. Fourteen years later, those photos of 9/11 still haunt me whenever I hear mention of the World Trade Centre. The same is true for the Bernardo trial, some 20 years later.

As the events in Ottawa recede, some of you may remain greatly shaken and very affected by the sounds, images and emotions surrounding the shooting. If, a few weeks from now, you feel that you are more distressed than you should be – maybe you are more upset than your colleagues, are having difficulty sleeping or focusing on other things, perhaps you are experiencing intrusive images or nightmares – please seek some support. Let’s take good care of one another.

Helpful Resources: 

Canadian Mental Health Association: Getting Help

CMHA Website on PTSD

© Françoise Mathieu 2014

Photo credits: Michel Loiselle 

13 Responses to Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Ottawa Shooting

  1. Rebecca Brown says:

    Dearest Francoise,
    Thank you for articulating what so many are feeling after the tragedy of the Ottawa shooting. This is now one of those few moments suspended in time when we all know exactly what we were doing and where we were when we heard the news of the senseless shooting which rocked our country and our souls. I grew up in Ottawa and I spent much of my childhood exploring and touring the capital with a sense of freedom and safety. My innocent childhood memories are now layered with the images of the trauma which were splashed so thoughtlessly throughout the news media. It is like the Boston bombing which also hit close to home for any of us who have run in the most sacred of races.
    You are so right in helping us to remember that the need to talk, to vent, to cry, to share, to comfort, and to console each other. But it is so important that we don’t further damage ourselves and each other by re-telling the graphic horror of the situation. Finding the strength and support in each other is the best way to building resilience and we will be stronger for it.
    With sadness, sorrow and support,

  2. Françoise says:

    Dear Monica, your post is a great reminder to all of us about the tremendous benefits of yoga in managing stress and trauma exposure. For those interested in reading more, please view some of our past blog posts on Trauma sensitive yoga and yoga for warriors:


  3. Françoise says:

    This is really exciting, Bill, thanks for sharing! I hope that people will follow your suggestion and contact Anna and Stephen. Warm regards, Françoise

  4. Hi Françoise:
    During my classes in Mindful Resilience for Trauma Recovery with the military here in Kingston last week, there were a lot of participants who were struggling. So I spent more time with them in grounding meditation with present moment breath awareness (mindfulness), gentle mindful movements and a longer guided meditation (Yoga Nidra). It helped and they walked away more relaxed and no longer “on-edge”. They commented that they would sleep well that night. As a Trauma Sensitive Yoga and Meditation teacher with OpYoga – I am so grateful that I can teach these tools that help with their coping skills and build resilience when these tragedies occur. Thank you.

  5. Bill Sparks says:

    Thank you for sharing parts of yourself as always Francoise.

    As Anna puts it “Community is Immunity”. Besides the excellent suggestions you put forth for talking and taking care of ourselves, it is heartening to see so many people form an instant community around the families, the war memorial, the barracks at Cold Lake, the armory in Hamilton, the funeral parlor, and the parliament buildings. Some of your reader may already know that Anna Baronowsky and Stephen Fleming are asking interested Traumatologists, ARPers and CF educators to contact them around forming a support network for military personnel. They put out this call 2 weeks ago. For those qualified contact Dr. Stephen Fleming directly to inquire. Very best to you, the folks at CF Solutions and “your” community

  6. Françoise says:

    Dear Vic, I too, found the community response to the Cold Lake vandalism act to be very heartening. Ok, I actually cried a bit, to be honest. Moments like these fuel our compassion satisfaction. I was driving on the 401 when the funeral procession passed us by. It was deeply, deeply moving to see the hundreds of first responders and ordinary citizens standing on top of the overpasses and by the side of the road. I was glad for my 16 year old to be with me. She kept on saying “mom, the world is a beautiful place, people are good, look all around you”. Isn’t that interesting, after such a sad week. Thanks Vic.

  7. Françoise says:

    Patrick, great to hear from you! I am glad that your workplace was able to debrief with one another the day after this happened. So important. You are in my thoughts.

  8. Françoise says:

    Taunya! Always love to hear from you. Glad it was useful. xo F.

  9. Françoise says:

    Dear Scott, thank you for your thoughts. I agree that I am probably “preaching to the choir” on this blog. 🙂 The only thing I find slightly encouraging is the fact that the media even bothered to block out some of the visuals of the scene, not sure they would have done that 10 years ago? But I’m 100% in agreement with you, I would have been fine with the global picture, without seeing a poor man being given CPR. In the past, during catastrophic events, I have deliberately avoided television for that reason (during 9/11 for example) which I found to be helpful, until the print media messed it up for me. Thanks again, I really value your contribution to this discussion.

  10. Vic Unruh says:

    Good Morning,
    Thanks for this information. I have experienced ups and downs this week, certainly more so in the days following the tragedy, and now generally a little edgy. It has been a great help to see and read the stories and images of help, compassion and understanding. The town of Cold Lake helping clean up the mosque and saying “You are home”. The Winnipeg Free Press featuring the story of the woman who ran back to the war memorial to help the victim. ‘Unfriending’ a certain individual. Making the effort to see the goodness in people because we are inundated by what is not. Best wishes to you and your team.

  11. Scott Coleby says:

    Thank you for speaking to this Françoise; putting context to it in a manner that hopefully many will read and reflect on. I lament though, only in that it is likely those who appreciate your words already are the larger audience and it is not the media (on a larger scale) who will cast an eye and consider the message.
    During a social debate regarding the incident in Ottawa and also the incident in Quebec, I heard an incredible statistic; a participant said 15 years ago we lived in a 24 hour news cycle and now we live in a 2.4 second news cycle; 9/11 being a major catalyst to this change. This very fact, not the only influencing factor by any means, creates an environment where there is no time for the gatherer to deliberate before disseminating the information or for that matter, the effect the information is having on them personally let alone the recipient of it. This creates the ‘perfect storm’ not to be too cliché I hope – a media machine with little understanding or interest in the intangibles such as how what they say and do affects the average citizen emotionally; and not to blame the victim but the average citizen doesn’t seem to exercise the power of choice and turn the television off, or turn the radio off, or turn past the page when their eye glimpses something they are ‘pretty sure’ is something they may not want to see.
    To be sure and not understate, this is an incredibly complex issue. I hope in my lifetime I see us understand it a bit better, take responsibility for the pieces of it that are within our control, but most of all that we consciously and soberly challenge the current narrative around NEWS and the flow of information. As opposed to being inundated with images, text, and commentary; I for one would have been just as emotionally provoked to hear Cpl Nathan Cirillo had been shot standing guard and the memorial, that his assailant had breached Canada’s house of democracy, and that he in turn was shot by an incredibly brave soul carrying out his duty. Following this, I would have waited with some curiosity for a handful of journalists with the integrity that the average citizen demanded and their employer rewarded them for having, to do their WORK. They would investigate; and when they discovered something they felt was worthy and was vetted to an appropriate degree, they would share it objectively and with reasonable sensitivity for those it would affect. This I would respect and value.
    John Mayer co-penned the lyrics and a song titled “Waiting on the World to Change”. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song and much of what it has to say. I just wish there was a way to say with equal passion and poetry that “We’re Done Waiting on the World to Change”. Who knows, maybe that was his point . . .

  12. Patrick M. says:

    Hi Francoise,
    I can see the parliament buildings from work, and thought little of it at the time. It was the next day that I felt shaken up quite a bit, and it was a good thing our team took the time to debrief and talk over things. It was interesting to hear different people’s reaction, from sensitivity to the needs of our clients to our own vulnerabilities.
    Thanks for posting this!

  13. Taunya Van Allen says:

    Thank you, Francoise. Your validation goes a long way to helping the healing process.

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