Loyola University Maryland

Counseling Center

Secondary Trauma Trial For The Murder of Ahmaud Arbery

The murder trial has started for Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan, the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery as he was out for a jog. It comes more than a year and a half after Arbery, who was Black, was gunned down on a residential street in southeastern Georgia. The three men charged in his murder are white. Systemic racism is not new to the fabric of American life, neither are state-sanctioned acts of violence against BIPOC individuals. Over the past several years we’ve been exposed to a large number of images, videos and first-hand accounts of brutality and violence towards BIPOC peoples. Exposure to these media and witnessing the suffering they cause in others can be sources of trauma in and of themselves, known as secondary trauma. Secondary trauma frequently presents with the same physiological and psychological symptoms we expect from primary trauma. Individuals who’ve personally witnessed or been the victim of similar acts at the hands of police are more vulnerable to secondary trauma, as are those who are part of communities who know this violence is possible or more likely.

Community members who provide emotional support to others in the wake of racist violence can be affected as well. This includes more than helping professionals. Vicarious Trauma can occur in friends, family, and community members who are the “rocks” and listening ears of their communities. Vicarious trauma, just like secondary or primary, can mirror symptoms of PTSD.

Signs of Secondary or Vicarious Trauma:

  • Difficulty concentrating or persisting in tasks.
  • Feelings of numbness, hopelessness, anger, or of being overwhelmed.
  • Experiencing trauma imagery- not just media or memories, but visualizations of described events.
  • Physical and emotional hypervigilance for threats or danger.
  • Physically or emotionally withdrawing from others- particularly salient for vicarious trauma amongst community/family/friend “rocks” or helpers and may be harder to detect.
  • Spiritual doubt and worry.
  • Fundamental shifts in beliefs about the world, people, and the future.

To help manage the impact of these types of trauma, please consider the following:

  1. Take a break from the news: Information overload can be upsetting and constantly being exposed to trauma can be triggering and negatively impact your mood. Make an effort to switch off your screens.  
  2. Show yourself compassion: The wide, varying, and ever-changing feelings you are experiencing are valid. Allow yourself to feel and acknowledge emotions without judgment and without being consumed by them. Instead, allow yourself to come out on the other end of emotions with love and care, knowing that many experiences are accessible and likely during these tough times.
  3. Make time to unwind: Make time each day to do something you enjoy and that makes you feel rejuvenated. Make sure to take care of your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs.
  4. Connect with others: Talk to people you trust about your concerns and how you’re feeling. Collective spaces for healing and care can be powerful forms of resistance, provide safe holding spaces, and benefit your health by showing you that you aren’t alone in your experience and others can help you meet your needs.
  5. Take care of your body: Meditate, eat well-balanced meals, take deep breaths, create a safe and comforting sleep routine. Resistance requires rest and rest can be radical when existing within systems of oppression.  

The situation may be overwhelming but making spaces to heal and hold valid in emotions in healthy ways will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.  

General Tips for Faculty in Supporting Students:

  • Check in on how they are doing
  • Do not assume that trauma only exists in individuals directly involved with distressing events.
  • Let students know about Counseling Center resources
    • Individual Counseling – Brief Individual Counseling and one-time Let’s Talk conversations
    • Affinity Spaces – Empower Support Group, In Out and In-Between
    • Emergency Services (410-617-2273 during business hours; 410-617-5530 after-hours)
  • Recognize that different students may have different needs and emphasize a willingness to meet students where they are.  Whenever possible, be flexible with your expectations.
  • Promote and practice self-care
  • When individuals of color discuss or disclose experiences of racism, believe them.  Do not minimize what happened.  Listen and respond with validation.  You can respond by using a phrase like:
    • “I appreciate you trusting me with that.  You have every right to be hurt by that behavior.”
    • “I’m here to support you.  If you want additional support, we can talk about resources together.”

Resources for Coping with Racial Trauma: