Insurrection Against Stigma: AOC Speaks Out on Trauma at the Capitol


Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez speaks out about mental health. (Picture courtesy of Twitter)

After the capital riot, many members of congress spoke out about the traumatic experience, expressing their fear and how it has impacted them. Yet one voice seemed to be silent amongst those sharing their stories, until Monday night. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opened up about her experience during an Instagram live, admitting that a previous trauma amplified her feelings. This compound effect of multiple traumas made it all the more difficult for Ocasio-Cortez to speak about her experience. 

Through her harrowing words, Ocasio-Cortez was candid and vulnerable, bravely sharing her story and expressing the impacts of her personal trauma. While some were appropriately supportive, others insultingly accused her of using her trauma for political gain. Needless to say, the claims of these critics were incredulous and insufferable, particularly in their attempt to discredit Ocasio-Cortez’s honesty and openness about such an incredibly sensitive topic. 

Trauma is extremely complex and individualized, making it all the more challenging to talk about, not to mention the risk that comes along with taking it public. But this complicated and chaotic nature of trauma makes it all the more important to talk about. Though definitions may somewhat vary, trauma is any distressing event that overpowers one’s ability to cope. This is well-articulated by clinical psychologist Seth Gillihan, “trauma doesn’t speak in words… it’s processing an overwhelming sense of danger, of feeling powerless, feeling my life is out of my hands.” 

While traumas are often interpersonal, they do not always have to be. Natural disasters or neglect can be extremely traumatic experiences. Traumatic experiences can mean something different for everyone and can lead to PTSD. People’s responses to trauma may also vary, and an event that is traumatic for one person may not be for another. Alas, the pandemic we’re all living through will likely serve as a shared trauma for our generation. 

Many are hesitant to share their struggles with mental health because of the fear of being stigmatized. With the response that Ocasio-Cortez received, it is rather evident that the stigma surrounding mental health issues still exists very strongly. Still, it gives me hope that Ocasio-Cortez sharing her story may have reached some people and perhaps helped them feel less alone in their own experiences. By being so vulnerable and sharing her story, Ocasio-Cortez likely validated the feelings of many who have gone through similar tragedies and have been struggling in their healing. Sadly, trauma is more common than we may think. As Ocasio-Cortez expressed in one of her social media posts, “Survivors of trauma are close to you. They are people you love & you may not know. Many decide whether their story is safe with someone by how they respond to other survivors. Don’t push them away.”

This story highlights the importance of being sympathetic to one another and crafting environments in which trauma survivors feel comfortable and safe sharing their stories. Though conversations about trauma are difficult, speaking about it can help survivors feel supported and better process what happened. Talking about trauma can also help someone recognize that they are more than their trauma and release some of the misguided beliefs that may have arisen as a result. For instance, many survivors mistakenly blame themselves for traumatic events and talking to someone may help discredit these feelings. 

Whether you are listening to someone courageously open up about their trauma, or you think you may be ready to speak about your own hardships, always remember that your feelings are valid. If a loved one is opening up to you, make the time to be available to sit down and listen and offer all the support and compassion you can. And when it comes to yourself, be reminded that you’re completely allowed to feel as you do. Stigma against trauma survivors, and mental health stigma as a whole, have no place in our world. By being there for each other, we can help unravel the stigma and support each other through our healing.