by Chad A. Buck, Ph.D.
Work/Life Connections–Employee Assistance Program
On Jan. 18, 1993, a 17-year-old student with his father’s revolver walked into a high school classroom in my hometown of Grayson, Kentucky. His classmates watched as he fatally shot their teacher and a custodian. He then taunted the students and held them hostage before surrendering to police. Within a day, television crews and journalists descended on our town. There were profiles on nightly and morning news programs for weeks, and several newspaper and magazine articles about the shooting were published over the years. Although the media coverage eventually ended, the violation and loss caused by one person’s actions continue to affect my hometown and its current and former residents 25 years later.
On Jan. 23, 2018, only five days after the 25th anniversary of the tragic incident in my hometown, a school shooting at another rural Kentucky high school resulted in the deaths of two students. A few weeks later, a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, left many injured, and 17 people were killed. Some situations have more fatalities or receive more media attention than others, but the psychological toll tends to be the same. For those who have experienced similar events, wounds can be reopened and result in painful memories and emotions.
Not all people who experience or hear about a traumatic event will develop psychological distress. Following any incident of mass violence, however, there can be direct and indirect effects on overall functioning. Those who experience a traumatic event directly may develop heightened stress, irritability and sadness. Unchecked, those normal reactions can develop into acute stress disorder or, eventually, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Those who experience an event through media coverage, social media posts or other sources like online videos may have typical responses such as heightened stress, irritability and sadness as well. There is also a risk for developing symptoms akin to PTSD but in a much less intense way. This is described as Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS). Research on STS focuses, primarily, on mental health professionals, health care workers and other helping professions, but some of the same symptoms can emerge for those outside of these professions. People who have experienced similar events, who have pre-existing PTSD, or who have other mental health issues are considered to be at higher risk for an exacerbation of symptoms and the development of secondary traumatic stress.
The amount of exposure to images or stories about a traumatic event may have an effect on the development of STS- or PTSD-like symptoms. Twenty-five years ago, the images and stories, while still upsetting and triggering, were contained to television, radio, newspapers and magazines. Today we have the internet and social media providing 24/7 immediate access to firsthand accounts and visuals, real-time coverage, and audio and video recordings. Research on the effects of indirect exposure to social media and internet coverage of traumatic events is still in its infancy, but some studies point to an increase in PTSD-like symptoms following the viewing of images and stories about a traumatic event. This suggests the need to limit exposure to news and other sources of information, especially if you have experienced similar events or other traumatic experiences.
Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress
- intrusive thoughts
- chronic fatigue
- poor concentration
- second guessing
- emotional exhaustion
- physical illness
Recommendations for coping
- Decrease exposure to news and social media coverage of the event. It is important to stay informed, but attempt to limit your time in contact with the issue until you feel better able to manage your reactions. The reactions are normal, but you need a break from them.
- Do not engage mental health stigma. People with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most people with mental illness are not violent and tend to be victims rather than perpetrators. This is supported by a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2014 by Vanderbilt researchers Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish. They write, “Fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.” Also, there is no doubt that school shootings are horrific events, and any loss of life is too much. Concerns about safety are typical, but mass shootings are still rare events, statistically speaking.
- Connect with your support network. Seek out those who will not minimize your feelings or thoughts and who allow you to process how you feel without judgment or an agenda. If you aren’t looking to talk about it, then engage those friends who offer support through activities and distraction.
- Check in with your children. Children may be scared to go to school or experience distress after hearing about a school shooting. It is important to listen to children and what they are afraid to face. Acknowledge how scary it can be, but remind them that there are adults working to make their environment safe and protected. Check in with them more than once, and be willing to hear what new responses they might have. This may also help you do the same for yourself.
- Engage in positive self-care. Prioritize rest, exercise and healthy eating to help your body deal with stress. Do activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Try to limit alcohol consumption or problematic behaviors (e.g., overeating, reckless spending, gambling) as a way to soothe your feelings.
- Write about your experience. Writing is a useful way of focusing and organizing the random thoughts that may be overwhelming you. Hand-writing tends to be more effective than typing, but whatever gives you relief is the key.
- Get involved. Engaging in positive activities like group discussions, campus events, spiritual activities or positive community action can help channel your reactions and offer opportunities to engage likeminded people.
- Seek professional support. Not everyone feels comfortable seeing a therapist, but having someone with expertise in managing trauma responses and supporting healthy coping skills can provide significant relief in a short amount of time that can have long-lasting effects.
Twenty-five years ago, information on direct and indirect effects of mass trauma and recommendations for coping were merely twinkles in future researchers’ eyes. Hearing the stories of how people from my hometown experienced and continue to cope with the aftermath of such a tragic event has helped me pay attention to how others experience trauma and loss. It provides a context and an important anchor to what I do as a psychologist. Finding meaning in the most unnecessary of events can offer hope and focus to those needing to grieve traumatic losses. It does not replace those who were lost, but it does motivate action and honor their place in our memories.
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