Psychological Recovery Following Mass Shootings

On October 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, NV we saw the largest mass shooting in modern US history. On June 12, 2016 in Orlando, FL we saw the largest mass shooting in modern US history. On December 14, 2012 in Newtown, CT we saw the second largest mass shooting in modern US history. On April 16, 2007 in Blacksburg, VA we saw the largest mass shooting in modern US history. The list goes on and on and on. In recent years, we have seen a surge of mass shootings and violence in the US and at the center of every shooting is one question, “why?” Today, I don’t care about the why. Why’s that you may ask? Well, as a Las Vegas resident my primary question at this point is “now what?”

Mass shootings and violence are not natural disasters. They don’t exist naturally in our world; they are created, molded, groomed, and lashed out into the world. Some of the worst types of violence are those perpetrated onto others from our fellow human being. This is what leads me to ask “now what?” Las Vegas, like many other cities and towns after such violence, is still in the early recovery phase. Like any other break, the wound needs to be covered before it can heal. Our first responders, police officers, emergency services personnel, nurses, doctors, and Red Cross volunteers are taking care of those open wounds even as they hemorrhage themselves. The psychology of mass murders is an interesting topic, but not my speciality. No, instead, I’m more interested in the psychology of mass murder survivors.

What does it mean to recover from mass violence? How do you know when you are “better?” How do you live with the new scars in your mind? The best way to start answering these questions starts with the responses. Trauma and stress responses are normal. Your body is reacting to danger, whether you were there at the shooting, know someone who was there, watch it on the news, or work with those who both survived and died. Our hearts race, our minds race, our breathing can change, we start looking up at windows of tall buildings, we don’t go where there are crowds, we begin to fear. There is no right or wrong way to respond to threat especially the surprise threat of mass shootings. In war, you are deployed. You know you are going into a war zone. You don’t know what is going to happen, but you prepare for the “what ifs” that come with that situation. Mass shootings are the unplanned warzone. You are not prepared to face them. You are not trained to control your breathing. You are not armed. You are not expecting them. This is what makes them so devastating to so many people; the unknown.

Now, here we are. After the sounds have stopped, the blood donated, the wounds packed and wrapped, we exist in a world unsure of what to do next. Some people may think “I need therapy now” or “I have to talk to someone.” As a psychologist, I am here to tell you that these instincts are natural, but slightly premature. Crisis counseling is not trauma processing. What that means is that the immediate needs after a mass shooting are specifically designed at ensuring stability. Making sure someone has proper medical care, housing, food, finances, and is alive. Crisis counseling allows you to have a safe, supported space to get these basic needs met; this is your survival mode. You may talk with someone, cry with them, shake in their arms, as you think about what happened. All of this is normal. Whatever needs you have right now are our priority. Survival mode is temporary, but temporary is subjective. Some people will feel somewhat better days after an event, for others it may take months. There is no right way to process trauma. You may notice changes in your eating patterns, you may be more cautious on your way to work, your sleep might be interrupted, you may notice yourself feeling jumpy or on edge; all of these are normal responses and, for most, they go away. Having trauma responses immediately after trauma is not pathological, it’s entirely normal.

Experiencing a trauma does not mean you are guaranteed to have residual effects. Nearly 80% of individuals experience at least one trauma in their lives, but the rate of chronic trauma responses is less than 15%. Why is that? What makes someone able to survive trauma and still be ok? Resiliency. Human beings are amazingly resilient. We have go through hell and come out kicking on the other end. We are resilient with support; knowing that how you feel is normal, that is it likely temporary, and that while this experience may change you, it does not define you. There is the old cliché that “time heals all wounds,” which I think is accurate to some degree, but I’ll extend it to “time heals all wounds, but they leave a scar.” Your scars are your battle wounds, they are your reminder that you are strong, that you are able, that you can make it through trauma, and be ok in the end. You are not alone, you are not broken, you are not crazy, and you can get better.