Genoa bridge collapse: a trauma-informed perspective
Updated: Feb 22
It took me a while to start writing this blog because there are so many different angles to look at what happened in Italy. What happened in Genoa is a disaster, let’s be clear about that. And as any disaster it is also an opportunity or an invitation to develop a more trauma-informed way of building our society.
A death toll of 43 connected people
At this moment there is a death toll of 43. That's a huge disaster and when reading this kind of news I most of the time see a pattern coming back, again and again.
We tend to forget how interconnected our world is. That becomes very clear when reading the following article on BBC News. Every deadly victim is connected to a family, some friends and colleagues. Some of those people will be severely impacted by this disaster too, probably for the rest of their lives. This kind of potentially traumatizing events go much further than we have in mind.
Next to individual people and families also organizations and communities can be impacted by this kind of disaster. How will the community living under the bridge deal with this? The rescuers and other witnesses? The city of Genoa? The engineering and maintenance company? I'm also thinking about the waste management company AMIU that lost one of their employees who was working just below the viaduct when the bridge collapsed. How will all these organizations deal with this disaster?
Are the impacted people, organizations and communities aware of the impact of such a disaster and how it could influence their life, health and future operating? Are we - or who is - prepared, willing and trained to support these people, organizations and communities?
When talking about victims, we tend to focus on the physical dimension - in this case the people that didn't survive the disaster. By doing so, we tend to forget the psychological and emotional dimension of such a disaster. I have the image of the truck driver that could stop just before the end of the collapsed road on my retina while writing this paragraph. This truck driver and some other people on or under the bridge who survived the disaster will probably struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It could take them a while to get back to normal. These people are victims too.
Are we ready and willing to acknowledge this fact and - here again - prepared, willing and trained to offer the necessary support? Are we trained to track and find those people, knowing that the more time between the incident and the showing up of certain symptoms, the more difficult it becomes to make a link that could support healing and recovery?
Guilt versus healing
Another element of this recurring pattern is the fact that we tend to fall into a guilt game instead of a healing game. Nobody wanted this to happen but it happened. It brings a lot of pain and damage and it will cost tons of money to repair and recover. It's a human reaction to try to get on the good side or the 'not guilty' side of the disaster but this activates an unhealthy dynamic, a blaming game and/or a hand washing game that will hinder proper healing and recovery.
Primary and secondary victims cannot be acknowledged in the right way while this game is being played. I guess this is one of the reasons for the boycott of the state funeral by some of the grieving families. It's too soon and maybe to easy ... .
Anyhow, there will not be one guilty service, organization or person to designate. It will be about a combination of circumstances and therefore a constellation of responsible persons and organizations. Only if they show up as a connected group, to support repair and recovery, the doors for healing will really open. A very specific kind of leadership will be needed to get there. That's the kind of leadership we need to deal with the vulnerable flip side of our society moving into more and more complexity.
Does our society - in it's current design - nurture this kind of leadership as well on the side of organizations as on the side of politics and government? Are we organized in a way that supports connectedness when dealing with this kind of disasters or does division rule the dance? And what kind of role can the media play in developing more connectedness?
A need for a more trauma-informed approach
In this example you can see how our society has become extremely interconnected and complex. This brings us to an important flip side of that evolution: a growing vulnerability. A more complex society needs smarter systems, services, organizations, ... to deal with this evolution in a well-adapted way. If not we won't be able to deal with certain events - like the one in Genoa - without making it even worse just like an incompetent surgeon can make the situation of a patient worse after a surgical operation.
Becoming a more trauma-informed society has become part of us evolving into more complexity. And when writing about becoming more trauma-informed, we are beyond the nice-to-have threshold. A person, a manager, an organization or even society can become more trauma-informed. A trauma-informed approach could be implemented in any type of organization and that would mean the following mix of growing our awareness and capabilities in dealing with this kind of disasters:
A broader awareness of the potential origins and widespread impact of trauma;
Becoming more aware of the negative and potentially long-lasting effects of unhealed trauma on people, organizations and society;
A better and broader recognition of signs and symptoms of trauma in individuals, families, organizations, and even society;
A better understanding of potential paths for recovery versus neglect which is most of the time rooted in fear for the unknown, shame, shock, incompetence, ... ;
Becoming more competent in responding to overwhelming events by fully integrating the knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices;
Learning how to support healing and avoid re-traumatization on different levels (= individual, group, organization and society);
Let's live the questions ...
As you can see, I have more questions than answers. Nobody can answer all those questions. But at this moment, our society is just not organized or designed to deal with this kind of disasters in a proper way. But as mentioned in the introduction of this blog, this kind of disasters can push us to develop to a next level (= post traumatic growth) and let's hope we get there. Let's hope the Italian people will find that doorway. It's one of the reasons for me writing this blog and doing this kind of research. It brings me to the famous words of Rilke:
"I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
You'd like to join me in living those questions? You'd like to learn more about a trauma-informed approach for organizations?