Since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 ushered in the modern era of shootings on campuses, more than 187,000 students from nearly 200 grade schools have been shaken by gunfire during class hours, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
The tally includes at least 130 killed and 254 wounded –– and an entire generation touched by mass violence.
Witnesses to such human-caused trauma are much more likely to experience mental health problems than survivors of natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. Mass shootings can be particularly damaging psychologically, much more so than car crashes or violent assaults, and on par with bombings.
Possible Mental Disorders
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is the most common psychiatric condition that can be triggered after disasters. An estimated one in four to one in three survivors can get PTSD, sometimes only after years of repressing their memory. PTSD was once seen largely as a combat-related illness and used to be called shell shock. But it can happen to anyone after a terrifying or intense ordeal, including child abuse, sexual assault or caring for people injured or killed in accidents or crimes.
Students may have signs of distress starting right after the traumatic event. Early symptoms can include feeling emotionally numb or detached, being hyper alert or avoiding certain thoughts, people or situations. If your reactions linger beyond a month, you may be diagnosed with PTSD.
The main PTSD symptoms include:
- Reliving the trauma constantly. You may have flashbacks, nightmares or hallucinations.
- Avoidance. This is the opposite of reliving the experience. You avoid memories or thoughts about the event, and people and places that remind you of it. You may gradually become isolated or lose interest in things you once enjoyed.
- Heightened physical state. You may be quick to lash out in anger, have trouble sleeping or concentrating, have stomach problems and lose interest in sex or food.
- Mood and relationship issues. You may withdraw socially, blame others and become distrustful, and students may struggle in school. Very young children can lag in learning language or motor skills.
Depression. Also called clinical depression, this is the most common diagnosis with PTSD. This is when you feel sad most of the time and it affects your daily life. A student with depression may lose interest in her studies, lack energy, gain or lose weight and think of suicide. Depression can be treated with medication, talk therapy or both.
Anxiety. This is already the top condition that sends college students to campus counseling centers. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. More than one in 10 American teenagers have anxiety severe enough to warrant treatment. A traumatic event can set off or worsen existing anxiety. A student may worry nonstop, be nervous or fearful to the point of paralysis or show obsessive or repetitive behavior.
Anxiety is often treated with medication used for depression. A type of talk therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy can teach students to recognize and deal with stress triggers. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can also help.
Steps to Resilience and Recovery
For a large majority of students who endure a shooting in their school, time and fading memory may be all they need to forge ahead with their lives. For some, the tragedy can reveal their strengths and spark personal growth, altruism and an appreciation for life.
School counselors are a key part of that recovery. Ron Avi Astor, a professor with the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, said counselors are part of the “central air” system that helps keep schools safe so students can focus on learning.
In an interview with the USC Rossier online ME in School Counseling, school psychologist Stephen Brock said that psychological security –– the students’ sense that educators care and are paying attention –– can help forestall shootings by shattering the “conspiracy of silence” that allows troubled potential perpetrators to escape notice.
Yet schools on average have one counselor for nearly 500 students, twice the workload recommended by the American School Counselor Association. In Houston, the ratio is one counselor for every 1,175 students.
Parents and educators can take steps to help students affected by shootings and other violence.
- Have your child or adolescent screened for PTSD and other mental health issues. They may not show symptoms for weeks, months or years. Some students may be more vulnerable to developing a mental disorder. Females are more likely to get PTSD than males.
- Watch for symptoms. Elementary school-age kids, especially, may not disclose distress or know how to recognize it. Students are more likely to show signs of PTSD if they have other crises or stresses or had a conflicted relationship with someone who was killed.
- Acknowledge the pain. Mental illness isn’t something you can simply shake off. Talk to your child about what they are going through. Give support and get others to reach out.
- Help channel the grief. Marshal your energies to push for solutions, whether it’s gun control, mental health care, funding for counseling or political advocacy.
About the author: Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs.