THE BLOG

Traumatic Events, Community and Culture: Media Mental Health Coverage of Sikh Temple Terror and Joplin Mosque Has Fallen Short

08/17/2012 04:37 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2012

It's been a difficult few weeks to be a South-Asian in America. A couple of Sundays ago, my friends -- Sikh, Hindu and Muslim -- were all glued to news coverage of the shooting at the Oak Creek temple. A day later, we found out that a mosque in Joplin, Mo. had been burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances.

Because the Oak Creek shooting came on the heels of another mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., the media began to compare the two incidents. In terms of mental health, experts gave the usual, solid advice -- make children feel safe, limit watching television, focus on the heroism people showed during the tragedies, and find ways to tell your kids that this is not going to happen to them (to shield them from the unpredictability of life). Overall, the media provided advice that is based on the current psychological understanding of trauma and coping. But, unfortunately, that advice also emphasizes individual factors and often leaves out the importance of community and culture on mental health and healing. In terms of long-term healing, what applies in Colorado may not apply in Oak Creek and Joplin, and here's why:

1) Although there are a lot of similarities in how people react to traumatic events, there are important differences too. Aurora and Oak Creek were both mass shootings, but the shooting in Oak Creek was a hate crime, the act of a neo-Nazi whose intent it was to terrorize a race of people. It does not appear that the Aurora shooter targeted that specific theater of moviegoers for any particular reason. Of course, in Oak Creek, the Sikhs were likely attacked because of their turbans and the color of the skin. And the feeling in Joplin is that the mosque may have been torched due to anti-Muslim sentiment. When people feel they are being specifically targeted for violence, this can increase post-traumatic stress symptoms. Hate crimes can increase feelings of helplessness, lower self-esteem and (rightly) makes people feel unwelcome and unsafe in their own homes and neighborhood. Basically, when a violent event goes from being random to being personal, mental health consequences may become worse.

2) The media coverage of Oak Creek (and Joplin) focused on the immediate congregations and towns but haven't focused on how broader immigrant communities all over the United States have experienced these tragedies. Many first and second generation immigrants have been glued to news coverage, thinking about who the victims were and how the government will classify these violent acts. Although most of us did not lose loved ones in the tragedies, it felt deeply personal. Many of us grew up with memories of Sunday school dressed in "ethnic" clothing, or watching our immigrant fathers and mothers plan fundraising events to build eagerly-anticipated temples and community centers. It is unbelievably painful to see those dreams, our American dreams, attacked so viciously. In this way, trauma and terrorism has not just a few victims, but victims all over the country. To truly do these stories justice in the long-term, the media's mental health discussion needs to move beyond Oak Creek and Joplin and include a candid discussion on the hurt, resilience and healing in our broader communities.

3) The way we talk to children about violence and mass shootings depends on who we are as well as the type of event. Most psychological advice in the media has focused on telling children these events are very rare and random. The idea is that kids need to feel insulated from the possibility of this happening to them. Right or wrong, this distancing helps kids to function psychologically -- or the unpredictability of life can feel overwhelming. However, some communities may not have the psychological luxury of distancing from what happened in Oak Creek and Joplin. For generations, parents in many minority groups have had to talk to their kids about the realities of racism and, sometimes, violence. For example, African-Americans have had to teach their sons and daughters about the realities of discrimination and stereotyping; gay and lesbian parents have had to educate their children about the ugliness of homophobia; and Hispanic parents have had to talk to their children about anti-immigrant sentiment. Perhaps along with the standard psychological advice (telling our children that "events like this are highly unlikely"), we also need to realistically tell our children (of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent, for example) that some individuals still have very negative views about our countries and cultures of origin. We have to encourage our children to educate others about their traditions, to be active, visible and vocal in American government and politics when they grow up, and to be an unapologetically positive presence in our country. In this way, talk of mental health and coping is also closely tied to discussions of ethnic identity and community engagement.

4) In the long-term, every American can help the victims of Oak Creek and Joplin heal from these crimes. One of the biggest predictors of recovery from trauma is social support. The communities that were deeply affected by last week's events cannot heal alone. We need children and parents of all backgrounds to stand with us as allies in a process of education about religious and cultural differences. If you see people stereotyping, correct them. If you need more information about our cultures, ask us. Consider joining groups that foster interfaith dialogue and understanding. Each American, with our broad array of religious traditions and ethnic backgrounds, has something to contribute in the aftermath of these types of traumas.

Purely psychological answers are not enough to promote long-term recovery in communities after hate crimes. The media needs to talk about the role of education, advocacy and activism as ways that communities can heal after traumatic events that involve hate. We also need to think about the ways that each American can contribute to the process. Let the conversation begin.

For more by Sheela Raja, PhD, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.