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March 6, 2008


As a result of the tragedy at Northern Illinois University, we once again are dealing with our vulnerability. Our prayers and thoughts go out to our colleagues at NIU, the students and the families who have been impacted by this tragic event. As faculty and staff here at the University of Pittsburgh, we can count our blessings that we have not experienced a tragedy of this magnitude.

One question that comes up when such tragedies occur is whether faculty at other universities should discuss the events in the classroom.

Even if you choose not to provide discussion time, it is probably best to acknowledge the event. We know that a national or local tragedy can negatively impact students’ concentration and their emotions.

Whether you lead a discussion or not, it is best to acknowledge that these types of events do have varying effects and that there is no right or wrong way to feel or respond to a tragedy.

This is also a good time to remind your students about the resources available both on and off campus where they can receive support. At Pitt, students can utilize the University Counseling Center and the Office of Cross Cultural & Leadership Development, which houses the Association of Chaplains and Greek Life and works closely with the Office of International Services. In addition, encourage your students to speak with their parents, friends and mentors both on and off campus.

If you wish to provide an opportunity for discussion, here are some ideas to consider.

• Discussion can be brief. Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of a class period. Often, a short time period is more effective. This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event, without pressuring students to speak.

• Acknowledge the event. Briefly acknowledge the tragic event and suggest that it might be helpful to share personal reactions students may have.

• Allow brief discussion of the facts, and then shift to emotions. Often the discussion starts with students asking questions about what actually happened, and debating some details. People are more comfortable discussing facts than feelings, so it’s best to allow this exchange for a brief period of time. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions.

• Invite students to share emotional, personal responses. You might lead off by saying something like: “Often it is helpful to share your own emotional responses, and hear how others are responding. It doesn’t change the reality, but it takes away the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful events. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”

• There is more than one way to respond. If students begin debating the “right” way to react to a tragedy, it is useful to comment that each person copes with stress in a unique way, and there is no right way to react.

• Be prepared for blaming. When people are upset, they often look for someone to blame. Essentially, this is a displacement of anger. It is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, then future tragedies can be avoided by doing things “right.” If the discussion gets stuck with blaming, it might be useful to say “We have been focusing on our sense of anger and blame, and that’s not unusual. It might be useful to talk about our fears.”

• It is normal for people to seek an explanation for why the tragedy occurred. We seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be prevented in the future. You might comment that as intellectual beings:

—We always seek to understand.

—It is very challenging to understand “unthinkable” events.

—By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain.

—Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes is inevitable.

You should resist the temptation to find meaning in the event. That is not one of your responsibilities, and would not be helpful.

• Thank students for sharing, and remind them of resources on campus. In ending the discussion, it is useful to note that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, encourage them to make use of campus resources.

(This advice was adapted with the permission of Joan G. Whitney, director of the Villanova University Counseling Center.)

For additional information, here are some useful links:

• The American Psychological Association provides an excellent online pamphlet entitled Managing Traumatic Stress: Tips for Recovering From Disasters and Other Traumatic Events (

• For information on the impact of traumatic stress, the American Psychological Association provides the online brochure: Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Traumatic Stress (

• The University of Pittsburgh Counseling Center provides a faculty and staff guide (

James A. Cox is director of the University of Pittsburgh Counseling Center.

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