Coping with the psychological impact of a mass shooting

Mental Health

by Ann Marie Warren, PhD

Jun 12, 2016

Sadly, our nation again has experienced what can only be described as a horrific event. The mass shooting in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, is considered to be the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. Not only were 50 individuals killed, but more than 50 have apparently been brought to local hospitals for treatment.

In addition to the understandable focus on the physical stability and recovery of those injured, there are concerns for the psychological impact of those who survived, those who were witnesses of the shooting, the first responders, the loved ones of those killed or injured and the impact on those in the United States and beyond watching what will likely be continuous coverage on TV, radio and social media.

Following this type of mass shooting, people may experience a wide range of psychological reactions, especially dependent on how intimately involved someone was to the event itself. Reactions can range from complete disbelief and shock to sadness, grief and anger. People often feel vulnerable, fearful and on edge. Individuals may have experience difficulty with keeping a normal routine, sleeping well or experiencing changes in appetite. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that these types of psychological reactions are expected and most individuals, even those closest to the events, are ultimately psychologically resilient after a trauma.

However, for some individuals, the psychological impact of surviving a mass shooting may place them at risk for certain psychological conditions such as Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), or if the symptoms continue, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The National Center for PTSD provides information on common reactions to trauma, including sleep difficulty, experiencing nightmares, having a heightened sense of vulnerability, becoming easily startled by loud noises, difficulty with concentration and decision-making, and feelings of sadness or fear. Additionally, more information is available on both ASD and PTSD on this site.

The American Psychological Association (APA) provides resources for how to manage these symptoms after a mass shooting. The suggestions include talking with others who can provide support, understanding that a range of emotions is expected and normal, and to remember self care after trauma such as maintaining sleep, using relaxation strategies to reduce stress, utilizing spiritual resources and maintaining a healthy eating and exercise routine.

A critical point is to be mindful of the amount of news coverage and social media you expose yourself to, especially if you find yourself experiencing increasing psychological distress. The APA recommends that breaks from continuous coverage are important.

For individuals exposed to trauma whose psychological symptoms don’t resolve over time or increase, or find their symptoms interfering with normal routines of daily life, professional help is available. If symptoms continue or worsen, it is important to talk to your family doctor, a psychologist or psychiatrist or mental health professional for help to find out if these symptoms are part of the normal response to trauma or are considered ASD or PTSD.

About the Author

Ann Marie Warren, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and research center director for the Baylor Scott & White Trauma Research Consortium. Her clinical and research interests include the psychological impact of injury and other medical conditions.

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