A murderous spree at a youth summer camp in Oslo, Norway last month ended in 76 deaths. Working methodically, a lone gunman fired at teenagers at a youth camp as their young friends watched in horror and scrambled for safety.
Much has been made about the motives and the twisted psyche of the murderer, but not so much attention has been given to the young victims who survived his rampage. What happens when the vague concept of death and the sense of immortality possessed by most teenagers is shattered in an instance horrific violence? How will they recover from such a nightmare?
For insight into the recovery process, we turned to Ellin Bloch, Ph.D., California School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles, who specializes in trauma psychology and recovery.
A Loss of Safety and Security
"Suddenly, there is a loss of feeling safe and secure in the world they are exploring. They mourn not only the loss of their friends and comrades, but perhaps also, the loss of what they and their loved ones expected that life would be. Because the camp setting was so 'innocent,' this intangible loss will be felt deeply. It is not as though they were in the military or other setting where a high probability of harm would be expected - this was a summer camp. That conjures up a more or less idyllic and peaceful place."
The psychological recovery process will be a slow one, says Dr. Bloch, but in this case, slow healing is not necessarily a bad thing. "Sometimes kids want to talk, and sometimes they very much want to be left alone. These preferences should be monitored, but honored."
While the psychological impact of this tragedy will vary, Dr. Bloch advises that there are some general things that can be expected over time. "Depression and sadness over their losses; anxiety related to these losses, particularly around their calm and happy world suddenly turned upside down; and occasionally over the longer term, such reactions as inability to concentrate, turning to alcohol or drugs to relieve the anxieties and sadness, and some 'acting out,' namely, taking risks because of the feeling that there is nothing to lose by doing so."
The teenagers will need support, love, and guidance from family, their peers, and their community - and for a long time to come.
CBC News reports that a 15-year-old camper named Elise heard gunshots, but felt safe when she saw a man who appeared to be a police officer - then she saw him shoot people.
It Takes a Community
Because the killer presented himself as a police officer - a protector - there is an additional level of betrayal leading to trust issues. Dr. Bloch feels that local police could begin to rebuild trust through community outreach during the remainder of the summer and continuing into the coming school year.
"The social support and community response will be critical to help these young people, who will forever remember this tragedy. Finding an appropriate way to commemorate the losses is important. Writing about the event (journaling) has been found to be very helpful in coming to grips with one's own feelings and thoughts about what has happened."
"I think that the assumption that kids are resilient and will get over this should be tempered in this instance."
"More than grief counseling should be offered. If these teenagers are to grow into a non-traumatized young adulthood, the entire community must take responsibility for their welfare. If it does, then I would not be surprised if a few of these teenagers one day end up in politics, serving their country. This event, if properly handled, may become an avenue for public service on their part, to build a safer Norway," offers Dr. Bloch.
"I want to make peace with the island."
The Telegraph UK quotes recovering survivor Adrian Pracon as saying, "I want to see the places where I have been and where I tried to escape. I want to make peace with the island again. And, and let go of what happened. You really appreciate everything more. And you start remember the little discussions and the little problems that you used to have. They are just so, so, so not important in a situation like this. And I will never be bothered by that sort of thing again."
The healing process has just begun for this brave young man. May they all find peace.
Sources: Ellin Bloch, Ph.D., California School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles, Alliant International University, Specializing in Trauma Psychology and Recovery; CBC News; The Telegraph U.K.
Ann Pietrangelo is the author of 'No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis.' She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and The Author's Guild, a writes for sites around the web.