The Psychological Heroism of the Sandy Hook Families


The jury has awarded almost 1 billion dollars to the Sandy Hook families. What toll did the trial take on their mental health?




The verdict is out. Though Alex Jones can appeal, the jury is awarding almost 1 billion dollars to the families of the Sandy Hook children, as well as a responding FBI agent, in the mass murders almost a decade ago. The families of 8 Sandy Hook school victims had alleged that the disinformation spread by Jones, including that they were actors hired to take away people’s guns, led to a decade of intense harassment from those who believed Jones. One father described being told that people were desecrating his son’s grave by urinating on it. Internet platforms were very slow to try to control the lies that helped Jones and others to profit from lies about murdered children.

From a psychiatric perspective, if these family members were unduly traumatized by the deaths, most likely the trial would have elicited trigger after triggers to the original shooting deaths of their children. Prolonged grief would also to be expected. These family members could have predicted how anguishing the trial would be, but they went ahead regardless. For that, they appropriately can be considered to be heroes, since a common definition of heroism is someone who risks their well-being or life for others. Usually that is a physical risk, such as the example yesterday of the American honeymooners who helped save babies from a burning nursery in Barcelona. However, in this trial, there was a collective psychological risk.

We have heard such denials before and still do, including about the Holocaust. May this trial be a torch for the truth and a model for those who have the opportunity to be heroes.

In our field, psychiatrists and other mental health caregivers not infrequently work in risky situations, both psychological and physical. There are those who work in prisons and jails where assaults by patients are higher. There are those who work primarily with patients who have posttraumatic stress disorder and thereby are vulnerable to secondary trauma. There are those who treat anyone with a history of violence because a personal history of it is still the best predictor of future violence. Although it has received scant mainstream and organized psychiatry press coverage, there are the hundreds of mental health workers—psychiatrists not among them—who are in their 9th week striking Kaiser Northern California, putting their work future at risk by striking for quality of care by a caseload cap, fewer new patients, and more time for indirect care, all of which, if met, would also reduce the likelihood of burnout.

Heroism can come in many ways, as shown in these examples, in Ukraine, and in so many perennial stories over history. By taking risks to compassionately care for one another in need, we reaffirm that we can potentially count on one another for our collective well-being.

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™.

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