Coping in the Aftermath of Community Violence: Self-care Strategies

Disaster Distress Helpline 1-800-985-5990 Text: "TalkWithUs" to 66746  SAMHSA
PHCoE graphic
By Jason McCain, MPH, CPH
April 9, 2018

Following the recent shooting that took the lives of three dedicated mental health employees at the Veterans Home of California-Yountville, military communities throughout the country may be struggling to understand how and why such a tragedy could have transpired at a counseling center for veterans.  Watching the event play out on the news and hearing about it repeatedly may have produced anxiety, raised fears, and even challenged individuals’ assumptions about their communities and the safety of their workplaces.

Community violence often occurs without warning and not only impacts the survivors of the incident, but it can also trigger strong adverse reactions in individuals far removed from the event. Friends, family members, and colleagues may experience emotional distress, display depression symptoms, and some may even show PTSD-like symptoms. Traumatic events may cause an individual to avoid situations that remind them of the incident, develop negative feelings and beliefs, and experience nervousness and other negative reactions such as:

  • Confusion, trouble concentrating
  • Anxiety, fear, grief, guilt 
  • Bursts of anger, crying spells 
  • Helplessness, hopelessness 
  • Excessive smoking, drinking, or drug use 
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Trouble eating, trouble sleeping
  • Loss of interest in normal activities

These signs and symptoms can present within hours or days following an incident or may take as long as weeks to months after the initial act of violence occurred. Emotional recovery may be quick for some, but it may take longer for others and require additional help and support.

If you've been impacted by community violence, take care of yourself by practicing healthy coping strategies in order to prevent normal, though challenging, reactions from progressing into mental health concerns. To aid in emotional recovery and to help restore a sense of well-being and safety, consider applying these self-care strategies:

  • Turn off the news: Limit your news consumption. Whether you watch, listen to, or read the news, being overexposed to it can cause negative emotions to resurface and increase stress and anxiety.
  • Talk to others: Reach out to your support system. Talk about the event and your reaction to it if you want to, though the most important thing is to spend time with friends and family and stay connected to other people. The compassion and support you receive from those who care about you helps to maintain a sense of well-being.
  • Balance your perspective: Distressing events can leave you with a negative outlook towards the world around you. Take some time to think about the positive moments, events, and people in your life. Doing so can help counteract negative thinking and balance your perspective.
  • Get some sleep: Lack of sleep can have an adverse effect on your physical and mental well-being even when life is going well. Aim to keep a sleep schedule that will provide you with an adequate amount of sleep every night. Limit screen time and create a soothing environment. Keep electronics away from your bedroom and create a cool, dark, and clean atmosphere. If you experience sleeplessness, try applying some relaxation techniques.
  • Practice relaxation: Taking deep breathes, listening to soothing music, or meditating can reduce your stress and anxiety, and promote relaxation. You can even try active relaxation techniques, such as taking a walk, stretching, or practicing yoga.
  • Engage in physical activity: Make exercise part of your lifestyle. A regular fitness routine not only builds your physical resilience and strength, but it can also burn away stress hormones and promote the release of endorphins that make you feel good.
  • Do something positive and meaningful: Try to schedule an activity that you look forward to each day or find ways that you can help in your community. Volunteering and helping those in need is an excellent way of making a positive difference and will help you feel better too.

If you’re experiencing emotional distress related to community violence, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 for support and counseling. You can also explore the various resources below.

General Resources

Psychological Health Resource Center: A 24/7 free source of psychological health information for service members, veterans and military family members from professional consultants who understand military culture. The center provides customized responses to your specific questions, needs, and concerns.

The National Center for PTSD: Resources for survivors and the community following disasters and mass violence.

Give an Hour: Free disaster and tragedy care to all active-duty service members, veterans, and their families.

Defense Health Agency Military Health Podcasts: Information on tools and techniques to enhance behavioral health care and mental wellness in the military community.

Useful Handouts:

Active-duty Resources

Military OneSource: Trained counselors help service members and families with everything from stress and anger management to coping with grief and loss and connecting with resources and support.

Military Crisis Line: Free and confidential 24/7 support system staffed by qualified and caring counselors. If you’re experiencing any kind of distress following a traumatic event, a Military Crisis Line responder can help.

Navy & Marine Corps Resources

Navy Leader's Guide for Managing Sailors in Distress: Designed to help leaders recognize, support, and collaborate with Navy helping agencies to meet the needs of distressed sailors.

Fleet and Family Support Program (FFSP): Free confidential counseling to active-duty personnel and family members. FFSP counselors can help you heal in the aftermath of community violence and other disasters.

Marine Corps Community Counseling Program (CCP): Provides confidential counseling, and connects Marines and families with additional resources through referrals. Assists in navigating the many support resources available to meet individualized Marine and family needs.

DSTRESS Line: Created by the Marine Corps to provide professional, anonymous counseling for Marines, their families, and loved ones.

Army Resources

Behavioral Health Care: Soldiers and dependents have access to behavioral health resources through their Patient Centered Medical Home.

Locate your nearest facility using the Army OneSource app.

Air Force Resources

Behavioral Health Care: Airmen and dependents have access to behavioral health resources through their primary care manager (PCM). Locate the nearest military treatment facility for support.

Air Force Medicine – PTSD: Provides resources to airmen distressed from exposure to a shocking, traumatic, or dangerous event. 

Coast Guard Resources

Employee Assistance Program (EAP): Assists Coast Guard personnel and their family members with a wide range of mental health concerns, such as depression and emotional distress.

CG SUPRT: Counseling for a wide range of issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, work-related concerns, as well as other issues that may be impacting your well-being.  

Veteran Resources

Veterans Crisis Line: Free and confidential 24/7 support system staffed by qualified and caring counselors. If you’re experiencing any kind of distress following a traumatic event, a Veterans Crisis Line responder can help.

Cohen Veterans Network: Veteran and family counseling for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other concerns, regardless of discharge status or ability to pay.

Family Resources

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN): Offers resources for parents and caregivers dealing with children who have experienced a traumatic event.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Provides resources for parents helping children and adolescents cope with violence and disasters.

Useful handouts:

Mobile Applications

LifeArmor: Provides information on emotional distress, self-assessment tools to track symptoms, and offers self-management tools to address mental health concerns.

PTSD Coach: Information on PTSD, professional care, self-assessment, support, and tools to help manage stress.

ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) aims to help you live with unpleasant thoughts and feelings. It offers exercises, tools, and valuable information.

Mindfulness Coach: Effective tool for reducing stress, improving emotional balance, increasing self-awareness, and helping with anxiety and depression.

PTSD Family Coach: Designed for family members of those who living with PTSD. The app provides extensive information about PTSD, how to take care of yourself, how to take care of your relationship with your loved one or with children, and how to help your loved one get treatment.

McCain is a public health analyst at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence in the Psychological Health Promotion branch. He has a master’s degree in public health and is a U.S. Navy veteran.

The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.

Add new comment

PHCoE welcomes your comments.

Please do not include personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers, phone numbers, addresses, or e-mail addresses in the body of your comment. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, or any other material deemed inappropriate by site administrators will be removed. Your comments should be in accordance with our full comment policy regulations. Your participation indicates acceptance of these terms.

All ideas will be considered, but may not be accepted.