Internet Editor’s Note: Nimi Oduleye and colleagues recently published an article in the Bulletin on “The Advocate: Building a Bridge Between Self-care and Advocacy” You can find a free copy of the article: here.
School shootings seem as American as apple pie. The post-Columbine generation has been preparing to dodge bullets in school since they were learning to tie their shoes. They are fittingly dubbed “generation lockdown.” On Valentine’s Day 2018, such drills became a reality for students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. An active shooter slaughtered 17 Florida students and teachers on a national holiday intended for celebrating love and affection. America largely responded with the a-political “thoughts and prayers” sentiment and shook its head in dismay at the sad, but familiar story. However, this time, things would be different. These students were outraged and had no interest in following the narrative.
In the days after the shooting in Parkland, it took the wisdom and work of teenagers to create an unprecedented political movement; March for Our Lives. They treated the lack of gun control reform in this country as a uniquely bizarre political reality. This anger was channeled directly into challenging the system that maintains it. Because of March for Our Lives, over one million students walked out of schools in protest. Their march in Washington was purportedly the largest youth protest since the Vietnam war. Thousands of young people were registered to vote by the group in a matter of days. They have since partnered with key community partners throughout the country, hosting educational initiatives centered on gun safety and reform. They transformed their pain into power.
Prior to the Parkland shooting, the American Psychological Association (APA) attempted to address gun violence through supporting research and evidenced-based prevention policies in schools and elsewhere. They also took a standby declaring that addressing the psychological needs of those with severe and persistent mental illness is essential to gun violence prevention. Helpful literature has emerged in the area of firearm violence, which should contribute to future prevention efforts. However, despite the APA’s efforts, the National Rifle Association (NRA) remains a far more powerful and formidable opponent when it comes to changing polity in Washington. School shootings remain commonplace, and children continue to be slaughtered.
In just a matter of days, March for Our Lives was able to have a more tangible impact on gun control reform than the APA was capable of with years of work. This is understandable, given that advocacy efforts driven by personal stories are often far more compelling than those from allies like the APA. Although allies may care deeply about a topic, they can encounter a credibility problem when they attempt to represent or speak about an experience that is less intimately familiar to them. Advocacy that is born in personal adversity presents an opportunity for our profession.
In conducting trauma therapy, you quickly learn that out of horrible tragedies can come beautiful gifts. Posttraumatic growth is the concept that positive psychological change can occur after adversity. This is the story of Parkland. This very American story about a school shooting instead became a story about activism, advocacy, leadership, and the power. Grieving students cared too much to sit down and be quiet after adults and powerful organizations failed to disrupt the status quo.
In Parkland’s wake, therapists should ponder not only what it means to harness the momentum that is generated through mourning, but also the potential healing power of advocacy in our patients’ lives. When we work with clients facing systemic injustices or suffering after major tragedies, therapists and clients alike cannot escape feeling helpless and pessimistic. The therapeutic dyad might research opportunities for clients to work to address injustices as an effective component of psychological treatment. For therapists, engaging in such advocacy efforts on their client’s behalf may quell feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Advocacy may have the added benefit of preventing compassion fatigue and burn-out in clinicians. Advocacy work can therefore be a form of self-care for clients and mental health professionals alike, provided that people have the emotional capacity and psychological readiness to meaningfully engage with the world.
While March from Our lives arose from tragic bloodshed, America is fortunate that these students responded to their devastation with a desire to change the world. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students taught that we can affect change not just despite our pain, but because of it.
The shining example of youth advocacy in action, mentioned in this article, can be found here: https://marchforourlives.com/
Cite This Article
Slay, B., McGregor, S., Knauf, C., & Oduleye, N. (2019, October). The momentum in mourning. [Web article]. Retrieved from https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/the-momentum-in-mourning/