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An Anniversary We Would All Like To Forget – But Never Will

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An Anniversary We Would All Like To Forget – But Never Will

Since 1966, 1,102 Americans have been killed in mass shootings, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Thousands more have been injured—both physically and psychologically.

These survivors come from nearly every race, religion and socioeconomic background, living otherwise normal lives in Parkland, Florida; Aurora, Colorado; or the scores of other towns whose names have become etched in our minds.

Although mass shootings account for only a tiny fraction of the country’s gun deaths, they are uniquely disturbing because they happen without warning in the most routine of places: schools, churches, office buildings and concert venues.

“Simply by definition, mass shootings are more likely to trigger difficulties with beliefs that most of us have, including that we live in a just world and that if we make good decisions, we’ll be safe,” says Laura Wilson, PhD, co-author and editor of “The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings” and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Most survivors show resilience. But others—particularly those who believed their lives or those of their loved ones were in danger or who lack social support—experience ongoing mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

The National Center for PTSD estimates that 28 percent of people who have witnessed a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and about a third develop acute stress disorder.

Research also suggests that mass shooting survivors may be at greater risk for mental health difficulties compared with people who experience other types of trauma, such as natural disasters. A study led by former Northern Illinois University (NIU) graduate student Lynsey Miron, PhD, after the 2008 shootings on NIU’s campus, found that although a large percentage of mass shooting survivors were either resilient or displayed only short-term stress reactions, about 12 percent reported persistent PTSD, a number that’s higher than the average prevalence of PTSD among trauma survivors as a whole

What’s critical, psychologists’ research suggests, is to ensure that victims feel connected to their communities in the aftermath of mass violence and that they have ongoing support available to them.

Ashley Cech, right, whose mother survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, comforts Diane Sellgren, whose daughter died by suicide with a gun, during a gun-control rally in Washington, D.C., hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety in 2015.

Memorial events—particularly those that are student and community initiated and led—are most helpful to survivors in terms of recovering after a mass violence event, suggests a study conducted after a murderer opened fire, stabbed passersby and then rammed his car into a crowd near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014, killing six people and wounding 14 others. These events included a candlelight vigil the night after the tragedy and a memorial “paddle-out,” where thousands of the community’s surfers joined together in the ocean to remember the victims of the event.

“As a community psychologist, I’ve seen firsthand the importance of mental health promotion efforts that have nothing to do with counseling per se, but that help the community heal together,” says University of California, Santa Barbara, assistant psychology professor Erika Felix, PhD, who led the study.

Not surprisingly, one factor that predicts how well mass shooting survivors will fare long-term is their proximity to the incident. A meta-analysis Wilson led examining PTSD symptoms among more than 8,000 participants found that those who were most directly exposed to the shooting—those who were physically injured, those who saw someone else get shot or lost a friend or loved one—as well as those who perceived that their own lives were in danger, are at much greater risk for long-term PTSD symptoms and other mental health consequences than survivors who may have been hiding nearby or otherwise farther from the incident.

As we approach this most terrible of anniversaries, let us all take a moment to  remember the incredible loss our world suffered that day. For survivors, their families, the first responders and those young people who survived their own school shooting, these are extremely difficult times. Let us all hold them and the city of Santa Fe in our prayers this week.

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