A Look into the Psychological Damage Mass Shootings Cause

Nearly half of the 15 deadliest mass shootings in United States history have occurred in the last decade, according to the Washington Post. More than 900 people have been killed in mass shootings in the last seven years. But these horrific tragedies do not end here. They leave behind immeasurable mental wounds that victims and witnesses must deal with for the rest of their lives.

A first-grade student at Sandy Hook elementary, David Posey, saw his teacher and a classmate gunned down. More than a year after the shooting, he and his parents are still trying to get back to normal. His parents told USA TODAY that two months after the shooting, David urged them to leave a grocery store when an announcement came on the intercom. The intercom was on during the shooting, which brought David back to the traumatic moment.

“All the witnesses to this horror will be faced with the reliving of this event,” said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child/adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y., in an interview with CBS about the Aurora, Colo. shooting.

Dr. Fornari explained that witnesses with past histories of mental illness are particularly vulnerable to the risks of experiencing a traumatic event. The event can trigger a stress reaction that causes long-term changes in behavior, including separation anxiety, avoiding activities and frequently reliving the event. People who still have a strong stress reaction a month after the event can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Between 10 and 36 percent of people who witness a mass shooting are diagnosed with PTSD, according to a 2007 review by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The study surveyed research that was done after 15 mass shootings in the United States. They concluded that social support and individual counseling are the best way to recover from the ordeal. The researchers admitted that this type of research is not extensive because it is difficult to of the limited participants.

Dr. Kris Rose wrote about the prevalence of PTSD after mass shootings in a recent article in the Edmonton Journal. He explained that it is a normal human response to shock.

“It’s the brain’s response to, ‘I’m going to die or someone near me is going to die,’ ” Rose said in a recent article about his work. “It’s a very normal reaction.”


Rose and many other psychologists recommend that witnesses be screened for mental problems because they need to confront their feelings.

“Pushing it away will make it worse, Rose said. “As difficult as it is to think and talk about it, it’s the best thing you can do.”

Unfortunately, the increase in mass shootings means that more people have been affected by the difficult mental issues that arise from witnessing a tragedy. But the increase in media coverage around the topic means that more research is being done to help people who are affected. Victims and their families can seek psychological help to deal with their emotional scars.


   Alex Kramer

20131009-Alex_Kramer01Contributing Author

Alex Kramer is a graduate student in journalism at Stony Brook University in New York. He enjoys writing about health and science reporting. He studied psychology and philosophy for his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University. He is particularly interested in social psychology research and its practical applications. In his spare time, Alex enjoys long-distance running, he competed in the mile throughout college.

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