Wednesday Wisdom Series: The Role of Schema in Survivor Response: During and Following Traumatic Experiences Part I
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Here is your bi-monthly Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance
Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation. 
The Role of Schema in Survivor Response: 
During and Following Traumatic Experiences
Part I
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“I was thinking there's no way — we're in Parkland, Florida. There's no
way something like this is gonna happen…. There's no way there's a shooter
at my school right now.”

– A student on site 
during the Parkland Shooting

This student’s comments provide an excellent example of a significant obstacle for
survivors—in both the escape and long-term healing phase of trauma. Due to his 
the young teenaged boy never imagined that he would find himself in a
shooting at his 
school, where 17 would die and many others would be injured.
While authorities can quantify the number of fatalities and those with physical
injuries, there is no accounting for the number of emotionally injured survivors the
shooter left in his wake that day. 

The term schema describes a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes
categories of information and the relationships among them. Like other terms
recently discussed in the Wednesday Wisdom series, such as the Theory of
Shattered Assumptions
, and Just World Theory, understanding how schema
influences behavior
 can be helpful to responders who assist survivors. During
the escape phase of a trauma, it is believed that some survivors may not live,
due to their inability to grasp the enormity of the crisis.

In 2014, when the Costa Concordia collided with a rock off the coast of Italy,
guests were slow to evacuate for many reasons.
 One man whom we
interviewed for the training of crewmembers
 made comments that showed how
his schema nearly cost him his life. 
David, a very experienced cruise line
vacationer, had been on over twenty cruises. Nothing wrong had ever happened,
so he could not imagine it ever would. It was, however, his wife's first cruise,
and therefore she had no expectations about what was normal.

David explained that as the environment of the luxury ship began to change, and
the vessel began to list, he tried to convince his wife, Denise, that all was
—“nothing happens on these big ships, it is all under control". Denise, on
the other hand, could not accept that the severely tilting ship was performing
normally. It took some convincing on her part, but she was finally successful in
getting him to board a lifeboat with her along with other panicked guests. Looking
back, David credits Denise with saving his life.

In another example, a young woman learned that her husband was
unaccounted for and believed to be missing at sea. Later, while being interviewed
about how
 crewmembers could improve future responses to survivors in similar
she explained that while she heard certain words like "blood" and
"overboard," she stated that she had no schema for understanding their entire
message. She therefore could have used their help in explaining to the family
members on the phone back home what was happening.
Both cruise line examples provide insight into how survivors are often unable to
help themselves when they cannot grasp the gravity and details of a crisis. 

While it may be evident to some, to others if it is not within the survivors'
schema, they may not react in what might seem the obvious way to respond—and
may need more assistance than others.

A classic example of how this concept may have cost airline passengers their lives
comes from the collision of two jumbo jets in Tenerife in 1977. Pan American
Airways and KLM Airlines collided on takeoff, resulting in a loss of 583 lives and 61
survivors. A researcher conducted interviews with many of the passengers who
survived. He 
learned that there were others who lived through the impact but did not
attempt to escape. 
Stunned and no doubt in a state of shock, many of these
passengers were overheard talking in normal tones, seemingly unaware of their
need to run for their lives. 

Due to the safety record in the aviation industry, and since most flyers have not
d an airline crash, these survivors may not have been able to respond to
the danger, as they were 
to process the threat. Unfortunately, the flight
attendants and pilots 
were not physically able to help them.

Wednesday Wisdom Head

“What we needed was leadership. When I saw the responders wearing FBI
jackets, I finally felt like someone was in control."

– Man who survived the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood Airport shooting, January 4, 2017

Training and regular exercises of all employee responders is the best way to ensure
that their schema includes tragedies of the worst type—and therefore they are able
to carry out their responsibilities toward restoring safety and order in their respective
operations. Preparing for the worst, and hoping that it never happens, is a frequent
theme of well-prepared emergency management teams. Leadership is responsible
for ensuring that training and exercises take place.
The same survivor of the airport shooting gave an example of the need for
emergency response training of airport personnel. The morning of the crisis he
received a phone call from a family member telling him of the shooting. He
approached the gate agent 
and asked her if his flight would still be operating. She
told him that their terminal was not involved and therefore his flight would depart on
time. Shortly after that, when she realized that they were potentially in danger, in her
panic she jumped under the desk, and total pandemonium broke out.
While ducking and protecting oneself is often the preferred response while at risk 
personal harm
, many airport leaders are looking at increasing training of its agents
and all personnel 
to prepare them more adequately for their leadership role in a
crisis. The Foundation is partnering with many airports to assist with this growth and
expansion of training.

Like leaders in charge of airport responders, due to increased shootings and attacks
in public places, others may do well to reassess risks that their employees face. An
assessment might show that new threats exist and therefore additional training and
preparation may be needed to prevent employees from becoming victims too,
because of their own schema.

© 2018 Higher Resources, Inc./Aviem International, Inc.
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