I can’t get the Josh Powell story out of my head. Living in Utah, it has been a popular story here since his wife Susan disappeared over two years ago. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since he took his own life and the lives of his two young sons earlier this month. I find myself emotionally disturbed and unsettled as more gruesome details come out about the murder/suicide. I catch myself looking on the internet several times a day for the most up-to-date information on this case.
This story has stuck with me for several reasons. Obviously, living in the area that some of the events took place makes it more personal and harder to get away from media coverage. Another reason is that I’m a social worker by profession and a social worker was there that Sunday afternoon, helpless to stop the events from taking place. The most significant reason why I’ve found it so disturbing is that, like me, he was a father of two young children. I can’t fathom ever harming my children, let alone taking their lives.
What I, and many other people, have experienced because of this news story is called secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is a set of symptoms similar to those seen in the person who actually experienced a trauma first hand. We can experience an emotional and psychological disturbance by simply watching a news story or reading an article about a rape, murder, or natural disaster. A certain story may affect us more than others because it brings up a past trauma of our own or a detail of the story feels more personal, such as the location or characteristics of people involved.
Some of the symptoms of secondary trauma include feelings of hopelessness, insomnia, nightmares, racing thoughts, and a pessimistic attitude. Physical symptoms can be experienced as well, including headaches and digestive tract issues. If left unacknowledged and untreated, this can lead to more long term mental health issues, such as clinical depression. With the media’s tendency to concentrate on more salacious news stories and continuous advancements in technology, people are more vulnerable than ever to experiencing secondary trauma.
While men may not want to admit and seek help for secondary trauma due to societal pressures to be stoic, all humans feel and experience emotions. A disturbing news story can affect a man just as much as a woman. As a consequence of the pressure they are under to be untouched emotionally by their external world, men find it hard to reach out for the help they need when dealing with any type of trauma, including secondary.
The most important thing a man can do when experiencing secondary trauma is something they are generally bad at because of social conditioning: talk. It’s essential that men have at least one safe person in their lives to process their feelings about local or national events they find emotionally unsettling. This safe person can be a significant other, close friend, or family member. If you are not comfortable talking to someone in your personal life, a therapist can be an excellent outlet to express your thoughts and feelings. An online forum can be an emotionally safe way to connect to other people when experiencing secondary trauma as well.
Beyond talking, it is important that men do a good job of taking care of themselves when experiencing the symptoms of secondary trauma. It might be helpful to set limits with yourself on how much you are allowed to watch or read the news. You may even need to completely go on a media fast for a few days.
One helpful way to take care of yourself is to take a day off of work or school to simply rest and rejuvenate yourself. If you have a hobby, schedule a time in the near future to engage in that activity. To a point, distraction can give yourself time away from thinking about whatever is disturbing you, but be careful that you aren’t keeping yourself busy to avoid dealing with the secondary trauma. The worst thing to do is put on the bravado and act as if a horrific story of murder doesn’t affect you when it really does. Humans are by nature emotional beings, that includes men.
If dealt with in a healthy manner, the symptoms of secondary trauma can be short term, with no long term mental health consequences. If a man gives into the social pressures of masculinity by ignoring his true feelings and not seeking help, those feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and depression will continue to grow and seep into other areas of your life. Like REM sang, everybody hurts sometimes, even you.