Times of global disaster are ripe for hyper-social networking. Friends sound-off on their walls, and vigorously tweet and blog of impending doom and gloom. And all these updates raise a tough question: How do you respond?
While the slew of information and off-the-cuff online comments can make "friends" appear like jerk-offs ("Hello! Pearl Harbor? Japan deserves it!"), fear-mongering attention seekers ("I can't eat, sleep or breathe without thinking — nuclear fallout thing!!") or cheerleaders ("tweet to raise money for Japan! Let's go!"), most people are genuinely trying to communicate real feelings of loss, anxiety and/or support for the trauma survivor experience. Here's how to respond to everyone from true disaster survivors to incessant ralliers.
The Situation: A Facebook friend and trauma survivor posts feelings of confusion, loss, anxiety and sadness. How to Respond: Don't stay silent. Even if you don't quite know what to say, say something/ Be simple and direct, and let them know that you're there for them. Dr Krys Kaniasty, a psychology professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and social support researcher who has studied natural disasters and trauma survivors, recommends sending a private message that says something to effect of ‘I just read your post. If you need to talk, I'm here for you.' Make sure to include a a phone number — sometimes people need to talk.
The important thing here is to keep the personal chatter off the Internet. "You don't want to risk provoking them into posting something publicly that they'll later regret," Kaniasty says.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't say anything publicly. You can respond on their wall as well — especially if there aren't other responses, and especially especially if some dickhead posted something inappropriate. "Leave a public trace of a general nature so other people see you're trying to help," Kaniasty says. This will show that "you are treating it seriously and will likely inspire others to do the same."
Why it Helps: Letting people know that you're there for them is more helpful than you think. Social support researchers who have studied combat veterans and natural disaster survivors have found a strong link between trauma survivors and community. Dr Steffany Fredman, Staff Psychologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders found in her own research on flood survivors that, "social support is one of the most robust protective factors against the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, and this is true across different types of traumas". That one-minute facebook message might be more important than you think.
It's important to know your part, though: Kaniasty stresses that "you don't have to be a talented clinician" to be helpful. Most people aren't looking for you to provide a solution; they're looking for someone to listen.
The Situation: You're reading the thousandth tweet asking for your $US10 donation to help tsunami survivors. It's getting old and you're getting annoyed. How to Respond: Even if people are jumping on a bandwagon, ask yourself: is it such a bad bandwagon to be on? No? Then shut up.
Why It Helps: It's not just directly affected victims who can be traumatized by a disaster or a really horrible event, and some people need to feel like they're actively doing something to heal. If a tweet does it for them, great. Whether you choose to pray, think of someone, raise a glass, or send money doesn't matter—keep in mind, the message and intent is what matters.
The Situation: You're subject to the nonsensical ramblings of your online peeps.Nuclear Fallout isn't here. Why the hypochondriacal freaking out? How to Respond: If Facebook were comprised of our actual friends, we might understand these rants a bit better. But because most of our "friends" are nothing more than a random collection of party buddies, ex-coworkers, old classmates and the ilk, extra effort is required here. Try to muster some compassion; if the dubious poster's source of news is telling them that gas prices will soar and they may be subject to nuclear contaminants, their anxiety is real. Try sending links to scientifically sound info that counters their fears, and respond with something positive and non-combative like, "It might not be so bad!"
Why It Helps: As we established, even though someone may not experience a disaster firsthand, doesn't mean their anxiety isn't real. In a survey on the psychological effects of the BP oil spill released in February of this year, University of Florida researchers found that people felt elevated levels of anxiety, depression and financial fears, even when their geographical areas weren't affected.
The Situation: Someone tweets or posts intent to hurt themselves after suffering a traumatic event. How to Respond: Get them professional attention, ASAP. "If the person expresses doubt that they can keep themselves safe and/or has a plan and intent to harm themselves and means to carry it out," Dr. Friedman says, "it is important that they be evaluated by a professional immediately." Not sure who to call? Try Googling a local trauma survivor hotline or a national org like the National centre for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Why it Helps: Some things are best left to the pros. In this situation, it's likely that they're not just looking for a listener, but need help keeping it together — and it's likely that only a trained professional can provide that help.
Erika Stalder is an author and advice columnist. Check out her other work on her website.