Survivor’s Guilt: Dealing With Being “One of the Lucky Ones”

Survivor’s Guilt: Dealing With Being “One of the Lucky Ones”

Imagine being in a tragic event such as an earthquake that killed dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people, but you survived. Yet you had to bury family members and friends. You were right next to someone who didn’t make it, and you don’t understand why them and not you?

Days, weeks and months go by and you can’t shake that feeling of guilt, loneliness and wondering if you could have done something different to save someone else. When everyone is telling you that you should be happy that you survived, you don’t feel lucky. You may even feel undeserving of having survived.

You may feel like you can’t talk to anyone about what you are going through, after all, what do you have to complain about? You lived! You survived. You were one of the lucky ones! However, for many people who survive such horrific events, being a survivor is just the beginning of what can be a life-long, debilitating relationship with survivor’s guilt.

What Is Survivors Guilt?

Survivor’s guilt is something that may develop in some people who experience and survive a traumatic, life-threatening event. It is something that is common in war veterans, airplane crash survivors, survivors of natural disasters and mass shootings.

In her blog on Psychology Today, the Stoic Warrior, Nancy Sherman, PhD states that survivor’s guilt begins with an endless feedback loop of “counterfactual thoughts that you could have or should have done otherwise, though in fact you did nothing wrong”.

Recently two of the Parkland mass shooting survivors killed themselves a year after the tragedy and one of the father’s of a girl killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting also committed suicide. According to their family and friends, they all had a very difficult time coping after the tragic event and appear to have been suffering from survivor’s guilt.

While not everyone who survives such tragedies will experience survivor’s guilt, some signs and symptoms include:

  • Having flashbacks
  • Feeling irritable
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling numb or disconnected
  • Feeling unmotivated
  • Feeling helpless
  • Feeling an intense sense or fear or anxiety
  • Experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and heart palpitations
  • Having suicidal thoughts

Survivor’s guilt is a normal response to loss, even if it may appear abnormal to someone from the outside looking in. They may be bewildered to why this seemingly “lucky” person is suddenly withdrawn, depressed or even suicidal.

Some studies suggest that individuals who suffer with depression or have experienced childhood abuse may be more susceptible to survivors remorse since both issues appear to break down a person’s healthy defenses and coping skills making dealing with such tragedies even more difficult.

If you or anyone who know may be suffering from survivor’s guilt, I  have gathered these helpful tips from the Psychology Today website:

  • Give yourself time to grieve.
  • Consider thinking about who was really responsible, if anyone.
  • Remember to take care of yourself physically and psychologically.
  • Think about what those who are close to you are feeling about the situation.
  • Remind yourself that you were given the gift of survival and feel good about it.
  • Try to be of service to someone or something.
  • Remind yourself that you’re not alone.
  • Be patient.
  • Share your feelings with those you trust.
  • Try to stick to a daily routine.
  • Consider journaling your feelings.
  • Get professional help, as needed.

I think it it important that after such tragic events, especially man made, horrible events like mass shootings, that while we are grieving for the ones we loss and reaching out to their families, that we don’t forget those who survived, the “lucky” ones, and reach out to them as well and continue to reach out and support them.

As you can see by the recent suicides, it can be a year or several years after the incident where the survivor reaches his or her breaking point. It also goes to show the bigger pictures of such tragedies and the very far reaching affects they can have on our society.

 

Is Your Child A Psychopath? Signs You Should Be Aware Of.

istock_000006360956xsmall-150x150As we continue to look at, investigate, try to understand and prevent tragedies like the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I thought it would be a good ideal to look at the three categories of people the usually commit mass murder:

  • Those who are delusionally insane
  • Those who are deeply and suicidally depressed
  • Psychopaths

In rare occasions there are combinations of the three or substance users or in extremely rare cases, brain tumors that cause mental and behavioral changes such as in the case of Charles Whitman.

When it comes to psychopaths however, they are the easiest to explain, and yet often go the most unnoticed.

Psychopathy is a type of personality disorder.

Many people think that they can identify a psychopath by the way they look and act, but that is not usually the case. Most psychopaths are very charming and very good at hiding their psychopathic tendencies until pushed or cornered.

Psychopaths seem to be born with an inability to empathize or feel sorry for other people. They have a complete disregard for other peoples feelings and suffering and can commit horrible crimes, or tell painful lies without so much as batting an eye.

Most psychopaths don’t know that doing something is wrong because they seem to lack the gene that makes us feel bad, or guilty, when we do something wrong such as lying or hitting someone for no reason.

They often have to be taught and reminded over and over again that something is bad or wrong, and then they have to remind themselves that it is bad or wrong, because they can do it and not feel bad about it at all.

They just don’t seem to be able to feel or care about other people or living things and may go on to torture animals in childhood if they are the sadistic type of psychopath and enjoys seeing/thinking of torturing other living things.

Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters seemed to fall into the category of a psychopath (also called sociopath). He once wrote that humans were as disposable as fungus in a petri dish.

His journal was littered with remarks about how much he hated people and wanted to kill everyone (I have a letter from a teenager I suspect may be a psychopath or budding one I will share later).

However, most psychopaths hide their hate or careless disregard for others and are usually witty, endearing and charming.

Psychopaths with high IQs often become criminal master minds, politicians, successful business people, etc. while ones with poor intellect and education tend to end up in jail more.

Levi King is a psychopath who went on a killing spree in 2005 that ended with him killing five people in two different states including three people in one family and the family dog (he thought he had killed the whole family, but one little girl managed to survive by playing dead). He reported killing these people because it relieved tension he had been feeling and gave him a sense of peace for the first time in his life.

As a child, Levi King once set his sister’s bedroom on fire because he was mad at her. As a teenager he even shot his cat to the point that it was literally blown to pieces.  He also had broken into a home and sat it on fire just because he could.

As a child, he had all the signs and symptoms of a budding psychopath.

At the age of 15 he dropped out of school, started having run ins with the law and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 20. He was 23 when he committed the murders and expresses no remorse whatsoever. He is currently serving a life sentence.

Like all psychopaths, Levi King is unable to relate or feel for other people, although he is intelligent and charming enough to hide that flaw just like Ted Bundy was so successful at doing.

General Characteristics of a Psychopath

  • self-center and self-important. Almost anything they do for anyone is only because they see a benefit for themselves it.
  • need stimulation and are easily bored.
  • deceptive behavior and lying
  • conning and manipulative
  • little remorse or guilt
  • shallow emotional response
  • callous with a lack of empathy
  • living off others/ predatory attitude
  • poor self-control
  • promiscuous sexual behavior
  • early behavioral problems
  • lack of realistic long term goals
  • blaming other for their actions
  • short term relationships
  • juvenile delinquency
  • short term relationships
  • breaking parole or probation rules
  • varied criminal activity

Signs Your Child May Be A Psychopath

  1. Setting fires
  2. Severe cruelty to animals such as killing and torturing them
  3. Persistently hurts, bullies or violates the rights of others by stealing or vandalizing their property.
  4. Continuously breaks major rules such as running away or breaking curfew despite knowing the consequences.
  5. Shows no guilt when confronted for doing wrong (i.e., pushing another student down the stairs).
  6. Shows a persistent callous disregard for other people’s feelings, not just siblings (i.e., pushing another student down and being unmoved by their crying or distress).
  7. Persistently doesn’t care about how well they do in school, even when they know there are clear expectations and they are capable of doing better.
  8. They appear cold and unmoved, only showing emotions to intimidate or manipulate others.
  9. Blame others for their mistakes instead of taking responsibility.
  10. Fearless, doing new and reckless/dangerous activities.
  11. They are unmoved by threats of punishment.
  12. They are highly motivated by reward and what they will get out of doing something, even if that act will hurt others (i.e., stealing, lying)

A combination of many of these signs alone are not enough to be worried about, but if there are enough signs and you are alarmed by your child’s behavior, I would recommend having them seen by a mental health professional as they could be signs of something else, such as childhood trauma and PTSD.

As always, if you believe your child has behavioral problems, have them evaluated by a qualified professional instead of attempting to self-diagnose them which can have damaging effects on your child.

*EDIT: Just yesterday (9/25/13) I interviewed a 7th grader who has been making his own explosives, threatening to blow up himself and/or other people, blowing up random things, tortuing his mother’s cat, kicking and hitting other students and teachers at his school so much that he has gotten kicked out of school several times and his family is currently looking for a new place to stay because they got kicked out of their apartment complex for his behavior and the fact that he has killed several ducks around the lake at the apartment complex. His mother brought him in because she was scared of him and he had recently attacked his 4 year old sister for taking too long in the bathroom. When I asked him if he had any remorse for attacking his sister, hitting other people, having his family kicked out of their complex or killing the ducks, he flatly answered “no”. Nothing seemed to affect him, even the threat of hospitalization and jail. Without intense therapy at the least, I see this kid growing up to be not only a menace to society, but potentially a psychopath. He stated clearly that he doesn’t care about other people or their feelings and he has exhibited that on several occassions.

Below is a short documentary done in 1992 about Beth Thomas, a child who suffered from sexual abuse and reactive attachment disorder (I’ll write about that in another post soon) and seems to show early signs of psychopathology.


Psychopaths are all around us in one form of another. Read: The Psychopath Next Door by Martha Stout and Dr. Hare’s book, “Without Conscience” for more detailed information about psychopaths.

Before Adam Lanza, Seng-Hui Choi, Eric Harris And Dyland Klebold, There Was Charles Whitman

whitman000As the nation and the world continues to mourn for the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings and for Newtown, Connecticut altogether,

we are finally having some extensive and serious dialogue about gun control and mental illness.

It usually takes something like this to happen before people talk about these issues, but something I was thinking about was the continued argument I have been hearing about banning assault rifles as if that alone will stop mass murders from happening.

I don’t necessarily want to get into that argument, but it made me think about people like Timothy McVeigh who used racing fuel, fertilizer and a rental truck to blow up a building and kill 168 people including children attending daycare.

It also made me think about one of the earlier, popular mass murders on a school or college campus done by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in Austin on August 1, 1966.

Leading up to the shooting, Charles Whitman had been suffering from tremendous headaches, health problems and abusing amphetamines.

The day before his rampage he begin writing his suicide letter which included:

I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

Around midnight the next day he drove to his mother’s house and killed her, stabbing her in the heart and leaving a letter saying that he loved her. Apparently he wanted to rid his mother of the troubles of the world.

He then drove home and stabbed his wife three times in the heart while she slept and finished writing his suicide note including saying:

“I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job […] If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts […] donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.”

He requested an autopsy be done to see if there was an organic reason for his terrible headaches and increased irrational and disturbing thoughts. Thoughts he said he couldn’t take any more.

He then prepared for his rampage and went to the University of Texas at Austin with weapons that included two rifles, a shot gun, a hand gun, a machete and some knifes. He shot several people before reaching his destination, which was the observation deck on a tower on campus.

From there he would shoot and kill 14 people while injuring 32. An autopsy would reveal a highly aggressive and fatal brain tumor that would have likely killed him within the year.

This tumor no doubt was responsible for his irrational thoughts and violent impulses.

Before the murders, Whitman did seek help for his headaches and violent thoughts and impulses from no less than five doctors, including a psychiatrist he visited once and said of the psychiatrist:

“I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come (sic) overwhelming violent impulses. After one visit, I never saw the Doctor again, and since then have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.

Medical records released from Dr. Heatly, the psychiatrist he saw only once say:

“This massive, muscular youth seemed to be oozing with hostility […] that something seemed to be happening to him and that he didn’t seem to be himself.”

And:

“He readily admits having overwhelming periods of hostility with a very minimum of provocation. Repeated inquiries attempting to analyze his exact experiences were not too successful with the exception of his vivid reference to ‘thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people’.”

The above statement is chilling because that’s exactly what he ended up doing. If he would have been involuntarily hospitalized then for homicidal thoughts, maybe all of those people would have been alive to see another day.

Sometimes trying to find the origin of mental issues is difficult, but it seems like Whitman at least tried and was failed by his doctors (or maybe just the victim of the period of time he was living in).

If his brain tumor could have been found earlier, or if he could have been hospitalized in a psychiatric institution, maybe the murders could have been prevented.

There are no doubt evil people in the world who commit mass murder like the one at Sandy Hook, but I think for the most part, people who decide to commit mass murder, have underlying emotional/psychiatric problems, that if caught and treated early enough, could prevent such senseless tragedies.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook and the many more before it have no doubt brought us to a place where we will change the way we do everything from protecting our schools, to protecting our communities from guns and those with mental issues that need to be kept safe from others and themselves.

I just hope that as we grief and eventually heal as a nation, that the talks about reform don’t die down until the next tragedy rips us out of our false sense of security and throws us back into outrage and panic.

The Sandy Hook School Shooting, Mass Murder And Mental Health Reform: Parts 1 and 2

istock_000005543513smallWhen I was in undergrad, I took a class called Mass Murder in the United States.

I picked up that book today and perused through it. It was published in 2000 and due to the number of mass murders that have taken place over the last

12 years, it felt severely outdated (although much of the psychological information in it remains relevant).

Unfortunately our country has a long history of mass murder with the number of incidents and victims increasing over the years, especially in the last 10.

After tragedies like the one that happened Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it’s common that many people start wanting gun reforms and bands on assault refiles. Something that often gets overlooked, but now is finally getting some attention, is mental health reform.

According to research done by Mother Jones in November, no less than 80 percent of mass shooters obtained their guns legally.

In the 61 cases they looked at in the United States over the last 30 years, at least 38 of the shooters displayed signs of mental problems before the shootings.

This happens way too often. While assault rifle bands get the attention during terrible mass shootings, the mental health component often goes largely ignored, despite the fact that it often plays a crucial role.

Many of these perpetrators in the study done by Mother Jones had acute paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and/or depression.

At least 35 of the 61 perpetrators killed themselves at or near the scene with 7 others appearing to have committed suicide by cop.

Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 and injured 23 during the Virgina Tech shootings in 2007, was found mentally ill and in need of hospitalization during a psychiatric evaluation in 2005.

Jared Loughner, who shot 19 people including former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, had displayed signs of mental illness many years before the shooting, including yelling out in class and complaining about hearing voices. Still, he was able to purchase a gun and ammunition without a problem.

One of the bystanders who helped subdue Loughner that day after he stopped to reload, Patricia Maisch stated, “That beautiful day, our mental-health system failed us.”

Could many of the mass shootings we’ve seen over the past few years (at least 26 in the past seven years alone) been prevented with better mental health reform?

That’s not an easy question to answer because it takes into account the issues of civil liberties, medical ethics, and gun laws.

In our country, we want to make sure that everyone has the same rights to bare arms, even those with mental problems, but we have to try to figure out a way of keeping guns out of the hands of those likely to use them to inflict horror on our society.

At the minimum we need to look at how we are treating those with severe mental problems.

Our mental health system is broken, plain and simple. I’ve worked in many facets of the mental health system to know that it’s the truth.

Look around you. I am sure you know someone who has fallen through the system, needs help and is walking around with a mental illness that isn’t being addressed properly if at all. If not, just take a look at our staggering homeless population, many of which suffer from mental illnesses that are not being treated.

Too many states are cutting funding for those with mental illnesses and many people that need to be hospitalized, simply aren’t because so many mental institutions have been closed down due to lack of funding.

In the United States you are allowed to be mentally ill, which means that you can be diagnosed with a severe mental illness and allowed to not take medication, not see a psychiatrist/therapist and pretty much be ignored unless you draw attention to yourself.

It’s your right.

As a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida, I have the right to involuntarily hospitalize someone that is an imminent danger to them self/others or is at risk of self harm (i.e., running through traffic in a manic rage), but not the right to involuntarily hospitalize someone who is actively hearing voices or hallucinating, as long as they are in touch with reality and aren’t a danger to themselves or others, even if I know that person needs treatment.

Of course not all mass murders are done by people who are mentally ill. Some do it to seek revenge or have other troubles, but I can’t ignore the role that mental illness, including depression in young men, plays in mass murders.

Part 2: Stima Associated With Mental Illness May Increase Chances For Violence. depressed-teen-istock

I hate when tragedies like this happen because it often puts a stigma on those with mental illnesses who already have enough stigma.

Most people with mental illnesses, including schizophrenia are not violent. However, having schizophrenia makes a person twice as likely to be violent than a person without schizophrenia.

A person who has schizophrenia and a substance problem is about 20 times more likely to kill a person than someone without schizophrenia, so we can’t ignore the statistics.

The stigmatization of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, often make it worse for those with it, causing exacerbation of existing symptoms of delusions, disconnection from reality, social withdrawal and lack of emotions.

I’ve talked previously about how many men with depression don’t seek help because of the stigma that goes along with a man seeking help for his problems (check out my post on Javon Belcher) and how that can turn deadly in the form of suicide, murder or in rare cases, mass murder.

A patient with schizophrenia, a former academic wrote anonymously about her experience with social stigma from her disease (via writer David Dobbs at Wired):

“I was diagnosed with schizophrenia just a month after Steven Kazmierczak (quickly identified as “schizoaffective”) shot six people to death on the campus of [Northern Illinois University] … Undoubtedly primed by this shooting, wary, uncertain, without enough time to think, my doctoral adviser suspended my graduate assistantship, banned me from the university, and alerted all faculty, graduate students and staff to forward all emails [from me] to her and, under no circumstances, respond.”

Her adviser unfortunately thought that she was planning to plant a bomb on campus, and although the decision to suspend her was reversed in about a week, the damage was already done:

“Friends — my doctoral cohort, as is often the case, were a close and tight-knit group — abandoned me overnight. Students and faculty passed me in the halls, staring ahead blankly as if I were an undergraduate they had never seen and would never see again. Parties were announced, talked about, and I was never invited. Never again.”

The social rejection exacerbated her illness. She became afraid to be around people, stopped attending classes and functions on campus:

For a while I struggled through classes, overwhelmed, perhaps in equal measure, by delusions and this new and unprecedented isolation. Voices took the places of both professors and friends. Following a hospitalization (and consequent withdrawal from a semester’s worth of classes), I descended into a state of the most stunning dysfunction, unable (or simply unmotivated) even to walk from my bed to the bathroom.

Eventually she was dismissed from her program:

Everything I have ever been told was a lie. My one way out — of poverty, desperation, madness — was never more than an illusion. And then disbelief. And then, how will I ever explain this to anyone, to family, to old mentors? And then betrayal. No language this time, no thoughts; crying, crying for hours. Alcohol, unconsciousness, unbidden dreams. Even there: repeating their words, over and over and over again. Isolation so intense, there is no way I will ever bridge it. I am lost. Days go by, weeks.

Eventually her thoughts turned to violence and self-destruction:

I fixated on a single vision, me, sometimes hanging, sometimes with gun in hand and a pool of blood on the floor, outside [her former adviser’s] office. Suicide, yes, obviously, but also something more: revenge.

This person never went through with murder or violence, but she says that she understands how someone in her situation would want to commit mass murder. This is sometimes the spiraling down process of someone with a mental illness who commits mass murder.

We have to do something about our mental health system if we don’t want to see a continuation or rise in the amount of mass murder in our country.

Maybe we need stronger gun laws that don’t allow someone who has been involuntarily committed to a hospital because of a mental illness or found mentally incapacitated to purchase guns without a thorough psychiatric evaluation and extensive cooling off period, if at all.

It’s time for the leaders of our states, our country, to sit down and have a serious conversation for the well-being of our nation’s mental health.

For more information on the Mother Jones research, check out the site below: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map