The View

UB experts offer insights on dealing with emotional trauma

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Published January 26, 2023


In the past nine months, Western New York has faced tragedies, crises and catastrophes. These experiences have been difficult for the entire community and have left deep emotional scars. Many have wondered how to deal with the lasting trauma of these events.

UB experts Isok Kim, associate professor, School of Social Work; Neil McGillicuddy, an employee assistance consultant with UB’s Employee Assistance Program; and Mickey Sperlich, assistant professor, School of Social Work, offer some thoughts on how to help each other — and yourself.

Given the events of the past year— the mass shooting in May, the December blizzard, the Damar Hamlin injury and the Dartmouth Avenue fire earlier this month, among others — what are some recommendations for how Western New Yorkers can take care of their mental health during these difficult times?

Isok Kim.

Isok Kim

Kim: We certainly had our share of challenges that tested our collective resilience as a community. When bad things keep happening beyond our individual control, it’s important to recognize and try to focus on things we can control.

What we experienced is collective trauma — because these are indeed traumas that had a community-level impact — and it’s OK to accept the fact that it will disrupt our individual lives in some shape or form for some time and to look for support and help from others. Likewise, it is also important to accept and acknowledge when others seem to struggle.

Neil McGillicuddy.

Neil McGillicuddy

McGillicuddy: Attending to one’s mental health is important during these trying times. We don’t need to wait to be asked how we are feeling; we can openly share this information with our loved ones. Also, when we are asked how we are, be honest. And if someone tells you they are fine, ask them, “Are you really?” People will be more likely to open up if they believe the person asking the question is genuine.

We can also take proactive steps to maintain our mental health through self-care. Many people like to take care of others more than themselves, but if you don’t refill your self-care tank, you may burn out and be unable to help anyone.

There are times when we need help because we are unable to do it all alone. That help may come from a friend, spiritual counselor, mental health therapist or workplace employee assistance program. Sean McDermott, head coach of the Buffalo Bills, noted the value of mental health counseling in a recent interview, saying that going for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. And the value of it is that it can help you become healthier.  

Mickey Sperlich.

Mickey Sperlich

Sperlich: Buffalo and Western New York have been really hit hard in the last year. It is common for folks to experience shock, fear, denial, a loss of a sense of safety and security, a loss of control of their lives, and a sense of helplessness and distress from the disruption to their daily routines. Unaddressed, these normative reactions can lead to posttraumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

Mental Health America outlines several steps folks can take, including talking with others about what you’ve experienced; spending time with friends and family; taking good care of your physical well-being through rest, exercise and eating well; limiting your exposure to imagery related to the disaster; making time for enjoyable activities; taking one thing at a time to not overload yourself; helping other people who are also going through the hardship; and avoiding drugs and alcohol.

How can we as a community prioritize mental health during times of crisis?

Kim: We can check on one another regularly and intentionally. It goes without saying, but it is important to remind ourselves that everyone reacts and processes crises differently. Therefore, any type of response to a crisis is a normal response, but we need to be intentional about checking in.

McGillicuddy: Communities can continue to prioritize mental health care during times of crisis by normalizing it all year. Mental health assistance is available 24/7, during times of crisis and non-crisis times. People can benefit from help whenever their mental health needs assistance.

Sperlich: Providing emotional support to one another is also critical and can help folks foster positive coping in the aftermath. Adverse mental health reactions can linger; we need to be patient with our loved ones and neighbors, and to keep checking in with them. Families are grieving and suffering, and often, if they don’t get the support they need, they will be at higher risk for long-term problems.

Looking for some mental health help? Community resources are available.