Parkland student protests: harnessing the power of collective trauma and resilience

By Doug Sitler

Release Date: February 21, 2018

Mark Seery
“Advocating for changes in gun laws is one way for these survivors to try to find some control in the situation.”
Mark Seery
assistant professor of psychology

BUFFALO, N.Y — Collective trauma and resilience are compelling Parkland High School students to rally in Tallahassee, Florida, today for gun control, mental health and school safety, says Mark Seery, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo.

An expert on resilience, vulnerability and stress, Seery says a collective trauma — like that experienced by the Parkland students — often produces a resilience and an urgency that inspires people, even those not directly affected by a tragedy, to take on big challenges like advocating for new laws or other societal changes.

Below, Seery summarizes the current research on collective trauma and resilience. He is available today for interviews and can be reached at mdseery@buffalo.edu.

Collective trauma can inspire action, even by those not directly affected

“By collective trauma, I mean a potentially traumatic event that affects an entire community, if not the entire nation,” Seery says. “With constant media coverage, it is possible for people to experience psychological symptoms even if they were not literally at the school themselves. This has been documented, for example, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. For this reason, it would make sense to me if not just students at the school were taking action, but also if other more distant people did the same. Beyond people who were already politically active, this could prompt young people who have never championed anything before to act now as a result of having been touched by this horrible event in a real and individual way.”

Resilience gives students some sense of control and purpose

“By resilience, I mean coping well with stressful situations. Research suggests that being able to find slices of control in stressful situations can contribute to responding to them with resilience,” Seery says. “The fundamental events of this tragedy cannot be undone, but there can be control to be found around the edges. Whether exercising control in the everyday details of one’s own life or by helping others, this can contribute to resilience. Advocating for changes in gun laws is one way for these survivors to try to find some control in the situation. We as human beings often seek to see the world around us as a meaningful and orderly place, and seeking action to right a wrong can further help people to reestablish that sense of meaning.”

Tragic events teach life-long lesson in adversity

“Looking forward, as terrible as tragedies like this are, there can be a silver lining for people who experience them,” Seery says. “Research suggests that experiencing adverse life events — even something horrendous like this — can contribute to future resilience. In other words, the process of going through serious difficulties in life can leave people better prepared to face other stressful situations in the future. For example, research I’ve conducted shows that people who have never had to deal with serious adversity are actually worse off in this regard compared to people who have dealt with several such adversities in their lives. So even when things seem to be at their worst, there is reason to believe that they can get better.”

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