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Additional resource: Face COVID – How to respond effectively to the Corona crisis by Dr. Russ Harris


The effects of witnessing traumatic current events

By: Ericka Pinckney, Ph.D., NCC, LPC

It is essential to recognize how life events contribute to our development. How did ones’ racial, spiritual, cultural, sexual, among other identities develop? (Arminio, 2014; Arminio 1993). Was there a good balance, or is there a problem with the messages one received over time? If so, how do we acknowledge and work to change any maladaptive thoughts that could negatively impact the ability to connect and empathize with others’ experiences?

The recent expressions of civil unrest related to Breonna Taylor and the released portion of George Floyds’ public death prompted discussions about trauma and secondary trauma. Ford and Bride (2019) noted helping professionals and staff who are directly and indirectly exposed to the graphic details of others’ traumatic experiences that could cause a significant consequence. It is vital to establish and maintain an individualized self-care plan to avoid burnout.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH, 2020) outline the formal diagnostic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as; you were exposed to one or more events that involved the threat of death, death, actual or threatened serious injury, and threads of sexual violation. Further, directly experiencing an event, witnessing the event as it occurred to someone else (i.e., close relative, friend), suffering repeated exposure to an event’s distressing details. For example, scholars report survivors of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center Towers and beyond, Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters reported heightened sensitivity to extreme weather alerts or annual references to 9/11.

The critical race theory (CRT) explains how everyday forms of racism and microaggressions impact organizations and institutions (Huber, 2014). The more we create a safe space with and for colleagues, families and friends to engage in heartfelt dialogue, new insight and ways of being can transpire.

Beginning in June 2020, WITF presented a bi-weekly moderated series with panelists, titled, “Toward Racial Justice.” The program addresses systemic racism and injustice in central Pennsylvania and beyond. Each segment focuses on various factors that impact systemic racism (i.e., housing, education, mental health, race). I believe it is critical to engage in purposeful conversations designed to raise awareness, increase access, and build healthy relationships and partnerships promoting cross-system collaboration and implementation of key points.

In closing, personally or professionally, we have been impacted by the current pandemic and the aftermath of civil unrest as it plays out before our eyes. The golden rule still applies as a moral principle all could follow, “treat others the same way you would like to be treated.”

For example, asking one’s self questions like:

1. How would I feel if treated that way?

2. Is this practice fair? Fair for some, or all?

3. Would I treat my family member, friend or colleague in this manner?

4. Do I treat others with dignity and respect?

5. What are my triggers and blind spots?

Let’s aspire to hold ourselves and others accountable for the positive change we want to see striving to make this a beautiful and just world.

Finally, Dr. Gwendolyn Poles and I encourage professionals to find solace, support and balance during these unprecedented times.

Ericka Pinckney, Ph.D., NCC, LPC is associate clinical director at Keystone Human Services in Harrisburg, Pa.


Abes, E.S. (2014). [Review of the book Why Aren’t We There Yet? Taking Personal Responsibility for Creating an Inclusive Campus ed. by Jan Arminio, Vasti Torres, Raechele L. Pope]. Journal of College Student Development 55(8), 858-861. doi:10.1353/csd.2014.0079.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Publisher.

Arminio, J. (1993). Racial Identity as Developmental Theory: Considerations for Designing Leadership Programs. Campus Activities Programming 25(8), 40-46.

Lindsay Pérez Huber & Daniel G. Solorzano (2015) Racial microaggressions as a tool for critical race research, Race Ethnicity and Education, 18:3, 297- 320, doi: 10.1080/13613324.2014.994173.

Sprang, G., Ford, J., Kerig, P., & Bride, B. (2019). Defining secondary traumatic stress and developing targeted assessments and interventions: Lessons learned from research and leading experts. Traumatology, 25(2), 72–81.

WITF (2020). (2020, July 2). Toward Racial Justice. with Charles Ellison (No. 2) [Radio- Youtube]. In WITF online