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Did you hear about Alec Baldwin? The psychology and the aftermath of accidental fatalities

Tags: Death, mental illness, trauma

For any fan of pop culture, multiple conversations have begun the past few days with, “Did you hear about Alec Baldwin?” If you didn’t hear, on October 21, 2021 the famous actor Alec Baldwin (30 Rock, Boss Baby, etc) [1] fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, accidentally, with a prop gun that was supposed to be without live rounds [2], or “cold[3] ”. The media coverage focuses on the “how” of the incident, but there are few -- if any -- articles to be found on the psychological aftermath of the event. Brushing over the accidental offender is common in such situations, and even in academia, there is little literature on the psychological impacts of causing the death of another human being.

The lack of resources for those who caused an accidental death or injury (CADIs) may stem from the taboo surrounding the situation. While understandable, the lack of support harms CADIs who experience a myriad of trauma symptoms, including intrusive thoughts, depression, hypervigilance, and problems with memory to name a few. This list comes from the website, created by Maryann Gray, a CADI who battled the lack of resources for others in her position by creating the website Accidental Impacts to compile a community as well as what to expect after the experience [4]. If not dealt with, these symptoms can develop into Acute Stress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Clinical psychologist Dr. Sara Rassool argues an obstruction to the recovery of CADIs is the inability to talk about their experiences. No therapists specialize in the treatment of those who have caused a death (Gregory, 2017), and the “morbid etiquette” of confiding in friends and family, [5] where CADIs experience the overwhelming feeling that talking about what they went through is [6] too uncomfortable of a subject to discuss even with loved ones[7] (Rassool, 2010).

What [8] can people in Alec Baldwin’s position do? Many resort to self-punishment, and do not allow themselves to seek help even if it is available to them. As Rabbi David Wolpe at Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple said, “there is no statute of limitations on self-imposed pain,” (Gregory, 2017). Gray agrees with Wolpe and urges her readers to be kind to themselves. She emphasizes how their pain is “evidence of [their] humanity.”[9]

Accidental Impact lists opportunities available for people coping with accidentally causing a death. In addition to the community they have created, there are monthly fellowship meetings where CADIs can learn about relevant topics like self compassion and post traumatic stress, expressive writing about their experience with a discussion afterwards, and one on one peer support sessions (Gray). While these resources are helpful for individual CADIs, there is still a long way to go in research. Dr. Rassool suggests a longitudinal study would be advantageous to giving CADIs more context through which they can make sense of their experience. In summary, the CADI experience is under-explored but due to the efforts of Maryann Gray (Gregory, 2017) and Dr. Sara Rassool, CADIs have a growing pool of resources of which they can take advantage.


Cover image: Marta Shershen via Getty images

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