Psychiatric Views on the Daily News - Episode 185

Memorials to Mass Shootings: The Highland Park Model

Can an artistic memorial help recovery from gun-violence trauma as a sort of collective art therapy?

PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

Mass shootings continue, seemingly unabated. Perhaps we are becoming desensitized to them. Last night there was a deadly one in Memphis. What will be the aftermath of this one?

We are about 2 months past the Independence Day mass shooting in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois. For self-disclosure: it is the community where my Rabbi son’s synagogue, Makom Solel Lakeside, is located. I also did a column on July 7th titled: “The Highland Park Mass Shooting: Sometimes You Just Want to be Proven Wrong.”1

Grieving the losses and coming out of such trauma with posttraumatic growth and strength are the psychological goals. Can an artistic memorial help the recovery as a sort of collective art therapy?

This question is what the community is trying to answer as discussed in the September 4th Chicago Tribune article, “Public art installation honoring Highland Park victims still draws a crowd 2 months after mass shooting, but it might be scaled back.”2 Often, memorials like this one are short-lived. However, this Highland Park one had a different genesis. It was begun by someone who had already done several public gun violence art projects.

By now, however, there is controversy of how long to leave this installation memorial up. One group wants it to continue as it evolves. Another feels it is traumatic in itself. Highland Park officials seem to be looking for a compromise. I wonder if those upset by the memorial are those who were triggered by the shooting or other prior traumatic events. Perhaps, paradoxically, this suggests that they need to talk to someone about their reaction, as they might be at continuing risk for some degree of PTSD.

Both because my son’s synagogue is located there and I am a native Chicagoan now living in Milwaukee, I had to go see it right away. And I did, on that dreary, drizzly Sunday evening. It is located downtown, right next to the railroad tracks, mainly in a corridor with arched ceilings. Trees and posts were wrapped by community members in shades of orange, the color associated with gun safety. Photos of the victims, and fresh flowers were there. Uplifting music played nearby. Quickly, I noticed instructions of a kind:

“Leave what you want. Take what you need.”

But what really got my attention is thousands of message-bearing luggage tags handing from the yarn. An anonymous person was quoted in the article2:

“I couldn’t grasp it all, so the first things I did was write a note and put it up there. It has given me a chance to start healing step by step. I come back to it, I grow a little more.”

Images of healing and horror flashed in my mind. The corridor reminded me of the tunnels that I have heard about in near-death experiences. The railroad tracks evoked thoughts of the railways that brought Jews to the concentration camps. Then I reacted like the visitor, so I left this tag and am processing my own reactions with you:

“This psychiatrist thinks this memorial is therapeutic. Better than Prozac for grief.”

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

References

1. Moffic HS. The Highland Park mass shooting: sometimes you just want to be proven wrong. Psychiatric Times. July 7, 2022. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/the-highland-park-mass-shooting-sometimes-you-just-want-to-be-proven-wrong

2. Keilman J. Public art installation honoring Highland Park victims still draws a crowd 2 months after mass shooting, but it might be scaled back. Chicago Tribune. September 4, 2022. Accessed September 8, 2022. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-highland-park-art-installation-mass-shooting-20220904-yvmjgan5sncjjerb2llk6jxntm-story.html