Black female counselor talking to a circle of students in a library

How to Help Students Cope With National Tragedy and Grief

National tragedy has a major effect on students from all backgrounds, especially minority students. Here are ways to help your students cope with trauma.

When tragic events happen around the country, it can be difficult for educators, administrators, and parents to know how to help and support students. Our students are situated in a society where they are forced to reckon with incidences of racism, homophobia, and gun violence daily. Educators aren’t usually trained to help students cope with these traumatic events, and parents may also struggle to talk openly with their students. But national tragedies can have a serious impact on a student’s mental health, feelings of safety and security, self-confidence, and motivation; they can even lead to student attrition and feelings of academic disengagement.

After witnessing the murder of George Floyd on national television, Black students reported feeling fearful for their own lives and apprehensive about future police encounters. With the increased use of social media among young adults, graphic images and videos of people dying or being killed can have a deep psychological impact on students, leading to anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and suicidal ideation. Many colleges, universities, and even high schools issue statements of support and condemnation of hate and violence after traumatic events occur. However, many educators and parents are finding that messages of support are not enough to deal with the cumulative and long-lasting impact on students. If you’re looking for strategies to support students through tragic events, check out the five tips below.

First find support for yourself

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Put your oxygen mask on first.” While the role of educators is to support students, we must acknowledge our own humanity first and foremost. During the COVID-19 pandemic, educators, counselors, and higher education professionals experienced increased stress and burnout due to a complex workload and long hours. During traumatic events, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not only students who are experiencing grief and trauma but educators too. To best support students, you must first find proactive and productive ways to take care of yourself, such as:

  • Setting healthy boundaries between work and home: Avoid taking work home with you and have honest conversations with your supervisor regarding your workload and need for time off.
  • Talking with a therapist: Parents and those who are in helping professions often have the added labor of caring for others, which can lead to feelings of exhaustion and depression. It’s beneficial to seek out therapy to process your feelings in a healthy way.
  • Building your community: Find a group of parents or educators who are also undergoing similar challenges. It’s important to use this group as an avenue for sharing best practices and strategies on how to best take care of yourself and your students during difficult times.

Related: How to Build and Use a Support Network in High School

Find creative ways for students to express themselves

All students process trauma differently—they may act out, self-isolate, or channel their grief and anger in more creative ways. Especially when traumatic events happen to marginalized groups, students may not always feel ready to openly discuss or process their feelings or experiences. Some may need to express themselves through physical activities, meditation, or art. Compassion-focused meditation has proven to reduce race-related stress, with reported decreases in psychological stress, anxiety, disturbing memories, and depression for students. Colleges and high schools often lack ethnic minority counselors or therapists, so for students experiencing stress related to publicized racial events, meditation has proven successful. It’s important to take a break from formality or the need to return to business as usual and give students time for creative self-expression. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, many teachers instituted flexible deadlines and alternative assignments while eliminating testing as a way to provide students a break from the monotony of classwork and help them navigate the stress of a global pandemic.

Create safe listening spaces for students

There’s power in centering and acknowledging student voices and concerns. While it’s important to understand that not every student will want to talk, educators need to provide spaces for students to dialogue with each other. Be intentional and strategic in crafting these listening spaces to ensure students feel heard, affirmed, and validated. When events happen that impact particular marginalized communities like the LGBTQ+ shooting in Colorado, it’s critical to create inclusive listening spaces for queer students. These affinity spaces allow LGBTQ+ people to discuss these incidents with other likeminded students and educators who understand their lived experiences as queer people. Seeking out Gay Alliance or LGBTQ+ student organizations to host listening sessions is a great place to start.

In creating these spaces, we must also be cognizant of intersectionality and how different social identities may impact how students process and share grief. Black trans women are disproportionately impacted by violence and transphobia in the US, so Black queer students in general may desire a listening space that’s exclusively for Black queers given that they have to navigate racism in predominately white queer spaces—and homophobia in heterosexual Black spaces. This is why it’s important that safe spaces speak to the many intersecting identities of a student body.

Related: What Diversity Really Means on Campus

Assist students in finding a way to help those impacted

Many students who experience trauma or witness others being harmed may express a need to support those who are directly impacted. Learning about social issues and developing productive ways to contribute to society are central tenets to a liberal arts education, and educators can help students contribute to society in meaningful ways. During incidents of racialized violence at the hands of White law enforcement, many students write letters to legislators and Congress to advocate for gun control or increased transparency in policing. During the Russia-Ukraine Crisis, many students have written letters of support to Ukrainian refugees. It’s important to nurture and cultivate activism and civic engagement among students, as helping people is a great way to process and overcome grief.

Coordinate a community support model

Educators must realize they cannot do this alone, and supporting students through trauma requires a coordinated support system. Some college campuses have a Behavioral Intervention and Threat Assessment (BITA) team or CARE team comprised of diverse student service professionals—academic advisors, faculty, law enforcement, mental health counselors, and institutional leaders across the college—that serve as the first point of contact when a student expresses concerning or disturbing behavior. This community support model increases knowledge and resource capacity in solving student mental health and behavioral challenges. It also ensures students have multiple advocates who can provide resources and support. If a student is expressing feelings of anxiety or depression, having a mental health counselor on the team will help in providing a further assessment of a student’s mental health, while a faculty member can help ease stress associated with classroom workload. Campus CARE teams have proven extremely effective in providing coordinated care to students and increasing transparency with student-related concerns and challenges.

Related: A General Guide to Mental Health Awareness for Students

There’s no easy answer or one sole way to support students through traumatic events; it’s going to require a multi-prong approach. It’s clear educators, counselors, and parents can’t ignore the profound and long-lasting impacts that tragic events have on the psyche and socio-emotional health of students. Instead, we must be thoroughly invested in finding practical and productive solutions.

Want to learn how to better assist a diverse array of students? Check out more articles and advice from author Dr. Ciera Graham right here on CollegeXpress.

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