Mental health expert talks how to cope with ‘survivor’s guilt’

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Eight people tragically lost their lives and several others were injured in a shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis on Thursday night. Those who survived the attack may experience feelings of shock, confusion and fear. 

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However, in the weeks and months ahead, these feelings will soon fade and could be replaced with feelings of guilt. It’s what mental health experts call “survivor’s guilt,” a term used to describe when a person feels they did something wrong by surviving a life-threatening event when others did not. 

“It’s that guilt, that sadness, that ache, those flashbacks and reliving the experience,” Vanessa Enos, licensed mental health counselor at Community Health Network, told News 8. “It’s when those feelings start to creep in, that post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s what we would refer to as ‘survivor’s guilt.’”

Survivors often ask themselves questions like: Could I have done something different? Could I have stopped this person? Could I have saved someone?

The hard part, Enos says, is the answer to those questions is no. This makes it more difficult to heal, which is why Enos says friends and family need to pay attention. 

“Someone who has that survivor’s guilt, who has that post-traumatic stress disorder, you might hear them having thoughts of suicide or self-harm,” said Enos. “You might see an increase in substance abuse because they are trying to numb or avoid those feelings and that when someone needs to step in and help them out.”

She also says that love plays a huge role in the path to recovery, if its approach is right.

“Let them have the feelings that they are going to have,” said Enos. “Let them express what they need to express. Also, let them be quiet. Sometimes silence and calmness is going to be the best thing for them and then when they are ready to talk and ready to share something, validate it.”

Mental health resources

  • NAMI Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Be Well Indiana Crisis Helpline: 211
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741