‘No one walks away from these events unscathed’


April O'Neil, co-chair of the Staff Council operations committee, presents Nancy Briones, financial analyst in the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, with Staff Council’s Professional Development Award in Honor of Ronald W. Frisch during the Spring Staff Assembly on May 14. In its third year, the award supports the ambition of Pitt staff members who want to supplement their professional and personal engagement at the University through professional development opportunities. Applicants can apply for up to a $500 award. Briones plans to put the award toward pursuit of an accounting master’s degree from the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.



Coping with traumatic events, from the Tree of Life shootings to traumatic changes in our personal lives, was the major theme for this year’s Spring Staff Assembly on May 14, which also offered break-out sessions on the subject as well as improving staff members’ experiences in the workplace.

Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion Pam Connelly, the first of two keynote speakers, recalled a Monday morning several years ago when she greeted colleagues in the usual manner, not expecting more than pleasantries in return, when one colleague revealed the trauma she felt at a shooting that had taken place over the weekend, in another city.

“I didn't consider for a minute the different perspective my friend might have had of how the weekend had played out,” Connelly recalled. “The victim looked like her — and the victim looked like her family. Even though she was in pain … she spent the time and the emotional labor to explain how it had hit home, how it had affected her idea of safety everywhere in her life, and how colleagues didn’t realize that.

“I am worried about the people at Pitt,” Connelly added. “I am worried about the trauma that has been suffered” by many people and many groups. “I am worried about the cumulative effect of this trauma.”

Locally, the Tree of Life shooting last October was traumatic not only for the Jewish community but also for the city of Pittsburgh.

“Sadly this is not an isolated event,” she said, pointing to other mass shootings targeting African-Americans, Muslims and LGBT people; the harassment of black people being reported to the police for ordinary actions; the “systematic governmental attempts to reduce the civil rights” for LGBT citizens: and a spate of school shootings, all of which “have an impact for each one of us sitting in this room,” amplified by constant news updates on our smartphones.

“No one walks away from these events unscathed,” Connelly said. “We as a community are responsible for taking care of each other.”

Second keynoter Jamie Kulzer, faculty member in the mental health counseling program of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, highlighted these personal effects of such traumas and what staff members can do to come through the experience better and healthier.

Crises that traumatize us — events that seem to be beyond our ability to cope — can have long-term consequences, Kulzer noted. “We all experience crisis because we all experience loss,” she said, from divorce to the death of a loved one or the end of a job. And, of course, there are natural disasters and those created by humans, from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to shootings.

Most people in the middle of a crisis are only aware of the danger these events pose and how they change our feelings of safety afterward. But crises can be an opportunity to come out “both stronger and more compassionate,” she said. As we work to right our emotional ship, we can experience “post-traumatic growth,” she explained — although such personal transformation “is not a given.”

Kulzer offered multiple suggestions for coping with trauma in a healthy way:

  • Monitor your media intake to avoid re-experiencing parts of the crisis and re-traumatizing yourself.

  • Strive for balance by reminding yourself of things that are meaningful and encouraging in your life and take breaks to focus on things you enjoy.

  • Talk about your traumatic experience with family, friends and colleagues who might be sympathetic.

  • Take care of yourself and your basic needs, remembering to exercise, drink lots of water and, if they work for you, practice breathing and meditation techniques

  • Help others or undertake other productive activities that will help you feel better too.

“Give yourself time,” she added. “Remember that it is normal to have a range of emotions after a traumatic incident.”

If the above techniques don’t work, consider counseling, Kulzer said. Most people who seek counseling don’t have a mental illness, she noted — they have experienced a traumatic event with which they need help overcoming.

“The earlier you go, the easier it is to get through your problems,” she said.

Whatever avenue you choose, it’s important to remember: “It will take some time to recover your sense of equilibrium,” she concluded.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.