In the book, “Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma,” author Ken Falke describes how he was inspired to create Boulder Crest Retreat after his encounters with military service members at Walter Reed Army Hospital who were suffering through combat injuries.
He was overwhelmed with compassion for his fellow veterans and their loved ones but also with anger at how they were being treated. As a Navy veteran who spent much of his career defusing bombs and teaching other people how to do the same, he felt particularly connected to those who chose a similar line of work in the military.
Although he helped thousands of veterans and their loved ones by opening his home and offering financial resources, he eventually realized that the need was greater than his individual ability to make the kind of difference that needed to be made. He decided to dedicate more time and resources in order to develop more effective ways to help veterans with the physical and psychological wounds they experienced in combat.
It is striking that Ken’s story is so similar to that of Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. She was working in Washington, DC when the Civil War broke out. She brought supplies to soldiers from Massachusetts who had been brought to Washington after being attacked in Baltimore.
She realized that she knew some of them from growing up in Massachusetts, and so felt particularly connected to them. Seeing a great need, she was determined to find medical supplies and get them to the wounded on the battlefield, regardless of the risk and personal sacrifice. This ultimately led to the founding of the Red Cross years later.
Initiatives Arise From Changed Perspectives
Many other foundations and organization, social movements, and community initiatives have arisen from the energies and changed perspectives of people who have been affected by trauma. This outcome in the aftermath of trauma may be a particularly important aspect of posttraumatic growth. Social progress may depend on it.
Most people do not respond to traumatic circumstances by starting a major organization. But in their own ways, people who report posttraumatic growth often have an impact on the people around them in ways that are different from what they have been able to do before.
I am not creating an expectation here that posttraumatic growth involves major public accomplishments. It happens, but it’s not typical. I am well aware of the ripple effect of relatively private effects on smaller numbers of people. I believe that even the smallest of changes in how people carry out their lives around other people day to day can have profound effects.
Often, these effects may never be seen by the person who takes these initiatives. But the effects can be very real. Other people can be motivated to change certain behaviors and create initiatives in their own lives that affect still more people and the compounding effect can be substantial.
When we consider posttraumatic growth and culture, we also notice that traumatic events often affect more than one person at a time. For example, many events become known widely in a community, either because these events have affected many people because of the type of event it is, or because there is much publicity surrounding the events.
Common examples are mass shootings and natural disasters. Because so many people are affected, the responses people have to these events can affect the larger community.
Events such as natural disasters can be devastating for much of a community. Wildfires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes have received attention from posttraumatic growth researchers.
Disasters a Catalyst for Cooperation
Although communities may be devastated structurally, the disasters that have hit them can also be a catalyst for cooperation, mutual help, and rebuilding. An example of this is the city of Kobe, Japan, where an earthquake in 1995 killed more than 6,000 people. After this disaster, the city was forced to use volunteers for the first time in managing the response. This created a new culture of volunteerism, and led to a new understanding in Japan of the psychological effects of trauma and the need for mental health services.
These positive effects were not limited to Japanese culture. Other countries made note of how the Japanese people worked together and the lessons they learned, which created global awareness and policy change.
Of course, social and cultural changes require the initiatives and actions of individuals. Some people who go through trauma discover that they have qualities of leadership of which they had previously been unaware. It may be that these qualities are born from emotional experiences that prompt people to overcome their lack of assertiveness or confidence.
Reynolds Price, who wrote the autobiography, “A Whole New Life” about his experience with paralyzing spinal cord cancer, said that this kind of trauma forces a person to be the “the next viable you,” who is full of gratitude for survival.
Some survivors of trauma find that this new self has a meaningful mission to help others who are also struggling to survive. This often starts in small and quiet ways, but these missions can also expand into efforts that can change a society and culture.
*This article was adapted from Dr. Moore’s upcoming book, Transformed by Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth.