“Where were you on the evening of Monday, Jan. 2?” This may be a question that hangs around for quite some time. The full story of the evening’s massive impact is yet to be fully played out. For a viewing audience estimated by Nielsen at 23.8 million, and a sold-out stadium of NFL fans, these folks were dialed in to view one of the most important games of the season. As we all so painfully know by now, it turned out to be something else.
Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin fell to the ground following a routine tackle, suffering from cardiac arrest. Trained personnel rallied around him in their efforts to save his life. What started as sport turned to sorrow, confusion and mounting trauma. Among the TV viewers was Shaun Nanavati, a neuropsychologist and chief science officer of the anxiety management app AQ. “I think we often watch television or identify with the intensity and thrill of sports because it provides a safe bubble in which we can act out our emotions without the danger of (reprisal),” he recently recounted to Lizz Schumer, senior editor of Good Housekeeping. “A tragedy like that on live television Monday night punctures that illusion. The realization that life is always potentially dangerous and that we may not have control is a terrifying one.”
Thank God it looks like some form of recovery now seems in the cards for Hamlin. While others either debate or profess to know the exact medical causes behind his heart failure, it is also important that we also focus on the effects this tragic event has had on those who witnessed it. As Dr. Sarah Bateup, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at corporate mental health platform Oliva, recently explained in a Fortune news report, players involved and NFL staff will be “vulnerable to vicarious trauma.” Bateup also cautioned the NFL to maintain vigilance. “Vicarious trauma may not happen immediately; it’s more likely to occur a few weeks after the event.”
Writes Alexandra Jabr, a paramedic and death, grief & resilience educator, in a post on health care news site HMP Global: “Every single player and spectator is a secondary patient: those in the stands, on the sidelines, players who rendered care and were involved in the play. The closer in physical proximity to the event, the higher their acuity in terms of emotional trauma.” This certainly applies to those down on the field administrating emergency care.
Says paramedic Jabr: “Any medical professional with countless cardiac arrests under their belt who has also run an arrest off-duty knows it sticks with you differently. Only then do we get a taste of what it was like for the layperson in the stands and the players on the field to witness what they did that night … (Any one of these individuals) still only understands to a small degree the amount of pressure those first responders and medical staff were under that night. Their training kept them grounded enough to get the job done and not feel rushed by the collective emotion building around them to beat feet to the hospital before high-performance CPR was established. Outstanding job to you all.”
She also cautions that “grief sometimes assigns guilt and self-blame in the hours and days following an event. Even if Hamlin survives, something like this has the ability to grab hold of a secondary patient’s psyche for the long haul. Now is the time to intervene.”
“Even if this story ends with a successful save, it remains a traumatic event,” she reminds us. “Grief will still occur, mourning will play out, unhealthy coping mechanisms will be turned to, and for some, trauma will linger. These players will need to be treated for their psychological injuries just as care would be rendered for any physical injury sustained during a game.”
“Those with children who saw what the rest of us adults were shaken by last night — speak to them,” says Jabr. “Give them your attention. Be honest and remain curious. Most of all, don’t dismiss the fears and feelings around whatever comes up for them. In your eyes, he may be a stranger. To them, a new fear may be unlocked, and they could associate this potentially fatal injury with someone personal in their lives.”
Mykal Manswell is a clinical mental health counselor associate in North Carolina specializing in helping young adults, adults and couples with mental performance challenges like anxiety, stress and PTSD. “Seeing people get hurt on screen while it’s live is heartbreaking because it reminds us of mortality as human beings,” he explains to Schumer.
“In general, there is strong research showing that witnessing traumatic events on TV, leads to anxiety and PTSD symptoms in some people that can persist for months or years,” says Elissa Epel, stress researcher and author of “The Stress Prescription.”
And it’s not just (violent injuries in) sports,” Schumer adds. “War footage, violence on the news or on social media can all feel like a punch to the gut. Nothing inoculates any of us against watching human suffering … When processing events like having watched a live injury or death, some people … find it cathartic to talk it through with friends, while others need to take some time alone with their thoughts. Neither approach is wrong.”
“Having something to do, even if it’s just typing a few sympathetic words into your phone, can help people feel less out of control or redirect those hopeless feelings,” she says. As has been well reported, by the day after the game, Hamlin’s charity had received over $4.3 million from well-wishers. It is a response not unlike the wake of tragedies such as natural disasters, mass shootings, war “and other events where it feels like there’s nothing else to do.”
“If you’re donating to a campaign or writing a social media post or letter of support, showing your children that message or action (and letting them help out, when appropriate) can help them feel more in control, too,” she advises.