The latest tragic event to headline the news included a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that resulted in multiple injuries and the loss of innocent lives. This senseless and traumatic event will be felt by the victims’ families and the community forever.

And for the nation that bore witness to this horrific incident, like Columbine and Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook before them; has the repeated collective trauma taken a toll on Americans’ psyche?

We spoke to Vjollca Martinson, Ph.D., a therapist at The Medical Center of Aurora, about the mental and emotional effects these incidents might have on those involved and those who observe from a distance, and strategies to cope.

How are these tragedies affecting us psychologically?

The mental and emotional impact from mass shootings will have short and long-term effects on everyone. It’s affecting the whole community – the families of the victims and the individuals who witnessed the shooting, of course, but also communities in and outside of the area. What we are noticing with the general population is that there are ongoing feelings of danger and concerns about personal safety, especially for parents.

I have two children. I sent my kids to school today, and the first thought that came to my mind was: are they going to be safe? That is a big impact.

Other mental effects include:

  • Irritability and anger with your family and peers; anger at the community – what could we have done to prevent this?
  • The younger kids may struggle with this more, and it will manifest in ways like having a hard time going to school in the morning. Research shows that initially school attendance will decrease as a result of these shootings. Children and parents may struggle with separation anxiety because kids are afraid to leave the parents and parents are afraid that their child may not be safe.
  • Sleep disorders, lack of appetite and difficulty concentrating because of distress.
  • Academic achievement is lower as a result of a school shooting. Research shows that test scores, usually in english and math will decrease, especially for boys. And because of the lower test scores, opportunities to select their college of choice might decrease, for example.
  • For those directly involved, they may experience survivor’s guilt. They, too, will question, what they could have done to prevent the tragedy. There’s nothing that they could have done but the guilt is present.
  • Issues with violence will increase, especially for children or adolescents who have difficulty with conflict resolution or expressing themselves. They see those images in person, in the news or social media, and they think that is the way to solve problems. They will enact violence in their relationships with others and even at play.

So, the mass shootings is not just something that will only affect us today and tomorrow, but will have long-term effects for years to come.

How specifically might these mass shootings affect people who were not directly involved?

The shootings will affect the rest of us wherever we are. We’re going to have the same reaction, although we did not directly witness the shooting. Approximately 15 to 36 percent of the population that did not experience this violence directly will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

The most common feelings are anxiety, depression and irritability, but also, the sense of safety feels like it’s been stolen in the community, especially in schools. Again, we stop thinking much about education, and focus more on safety.

With social media, children are becoming increasingly aware of events such as this, how might they be affected?

The younger the children are the more it affects them because their cognitive and social abilities to process the situation are not equivalent to those of adults. So there are things that we can do as parents to help the kids, such as:

  • limit the amount of television watching, that is covering the shooting;
  • However, we cannot simply avoid the media completely. In those cases were media is present and the kids have seen the news and know what’s going on, it’s very important for us to process the event with them.
    • Find out what they know, what they have heard and what kind of feelings they have. Some children might not have the right information or they might not have processed it in a way that is helpful. So, it’s important for the parents to sit down with the children and to determine how much they know about the event and talk about it.
    • Watch the news together, if the kids have had that type of exposure, with willingness to discuss the situations you see.
    • It is important for parents/adults to express their empathy and to express to the children that this is not a normal behavior. Some of us may get numb and think, well, here is another shooting. But every shooting affects everybody differently. So, in a way, we have to make a big deal about what is going on. Children need to know that even we, as adults, have feelings and when we are able to express our own feelings, they will be able to process their feelings with us.

What are some ways that adults can cope?

One of the best ways is to increase our resiliency. We know that when shootings occur, the sense of safety is gone. However, we see that the communities are resilient, the individuals are resilient, and even the children are resilient. We see it with going back to school and resuming our normal lives.

Other ways that will help include:

  • Maintain your routine. Try not to fear. Fear decreases our ability to cope. So, being able to think positively and to recognize the good things that are happening in the community and not focus on the negative, will help.
  • Learn social and cognitive skills, such as how to process your feelings; skills for conflict resolution; being able to provide support for other family members who are in distress and being able to receive or ask for support from family or community members.
  • Belong to a support group. That could include a support group of parents or for children; a church community or a community group. Those social gatherings provide the venue for people to express their feelings, to be united and to understand that they are not suffering alone.
  • Receive mental health counseling if the distress continues for a longer time and it interferes with the daily functioning.

Any advice for people who live in fear that it could happen to them?

As a mother myself, every day I think about my own kids. At the same time, I hope that my kids are safe. I still have faith in my community, and I think generally people are good. Being able to focus on the goodness of human beings helps keep me going. I cannot live my life in distress every day worrying about whether I am going to be safe. The best advice I could give to parents like me who worry about the safety of their children, is to provide as much love and support for their children at home; to keep the routines going, and to focus on the many positive things going on in the community.

Vjollca Martinson, Ph.D. is director of clinical programs and case management at HealthONE’s The Medical Center of Aurora, located in Aurora, Colorado. The Medical Center of Aurora is an affiliate of HCA Healthcare. 

Resources:

Impact of mass shootings on survivors, families and communities. (2007). Fran H. Norris. The National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD Research Quarterly, vol. 18 (3).

The effect of High School shootings on Schools and Student Performance. (2016). Louis-Philippe Beland & Dongwoo, Kim. SAGE Journals.