Mass shootings are unfortunately accepted as commonplace in the United States. There are many variables to why people commit mass shootings which range from revenge, allegiance to an organization, passion, mental illness, or just pure dickery. What I’ve noticed is that when this tragedy happens, it often focuses on the perpetrators and the dead victims, instead of those who have survived. Why is this? I like to think it’s because survivors don’t have the shock value as dead people and killers. Even though they don’t have “shock” value as the deceased victims and mass shooters, it still doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told.
What are the Survivors Called Anyways?
Secondary victims are people who witnessed people getting killed, the ones in the building when the shooting took place, the wounded, they were first responders, or they were people that lived near the vicinity where the shooting took place. It’s easy for these people’s stories not to be told since their experiences were not the “main” event. Even though these people lived, they were still affected by the massacre.
These People Weren’t Killed, so Why would they experience Trauma?
Traumas, such as mass shootings, cause long-term distress because the person experiences a threat to their survival, and it also challenges their assumptions about the world. The beliefs that are tested are that the world is safe and predictable, that society is just and meaningful, good people experience positive outcomes, and the world is good, and inherently people are good. These beliefs may not necessarily be right, but they allow humans to be psychologically healthy and adaptive. The assumption that everything is safe will enable people to work, date, raise loved ones, care for others, and be innovative. A tragedy such as a mass shooting puts all of these beliefs into question and may make individuals feel as if the world turned on them. People may try to differentiate themselves from the victims by telling themselves I’ll carry a gun with me at all times, That person is a different color, are they a terrorist? As evidence from the media, having these fear-based assumptions can lead to victim-blaming and lack of empathy.
There are testimonials from secondary victims of mass shootings who still feel the emotional effects of the tragedy they experienced. Mary Reed was one such victim. She was shot three times at the 2011 Tuscan event for then-Representative Gabby Giffords. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Reed has said that people have told her, “ I don’t want to speak with her–she was only injured. I want to speak with someone who was truly affected.” Reed attended the event with her husband and two children and was shot while shielding her daughter from gunfire. She now lives with a bullet lodged in a nerve bundle near her spine, causing intractable chronic pain. Every time Reed hears of a new shooting, it makes her think of how society focuses on the killers and those killed, instead of those who are injured and now disabled. After the Tuscan shooting, she found it difficult to find mental health support for her children. She has a clear memory of her son picking out the brains and blood off from her sister’s long blonde hair. The shooting also disrupted her sense of personal safety and control. The unfortunate part was that neighbors and friends had no idea how to interact with the family. Reed says that she remembers people saying, “Oh yeah, you were only injured.”
On October 16, 1991, a man drove his truck into a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas and proceeded to shoot and kill 24 customers and injure many others. Two months after the shooting in Killeen, one survivor states, “I can’t sit in a restaurant with my back to the wall since then. I have to be facing the door, able to see everything in the room.” Another survivor says that when someone enters that room, his eyes focus on the person’s hands, involuntarily scanning for a weapon.
On December 8, 1987, nine people died, and five more were wounded by a gunman in a city building in Melbourne, Australia. Some employees barricaded themselves in their offices fearing for their lives. After the gunman was captured, the man broke free, went to a window and threw himself to his death. A researcher collected self-reported data from 447 employees 4,8, and 14 months post-shooting–this was the trauma group. Employees from a different building in Melbourne served as a contrast group. The trauma group scored much higher than the contrast group on intrusion, avoidance, depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues. Even though symptoms lessened over time, there were still many people in the trauma group that were still affected.
These testimonials show that even if you were wounded or a witness to a mass-shooting, there are still long-term effects.
Self-Care if You are Survivor of a Mass Shooting
If you’re a victim of a mass shooting, there are important things you can do:
- Recognize and Accept your Feelings About the Event: Don’t ignore your feelings because it’s not going to work in the long term. Instead, feel your sadness, anger, and fear. Try to understand your feelings and roll with it.
- Practice Radical Acceptance: Truth is, the world isn’t completely safe, and not everything is within your control. It’s okay to compartmentalize, and just focus on you.
- Don’t be paranoid about everything: A traumatic experience such as a mass shooting can make everything seem very dangerous. In reality, many people can go to theaters, music festivals, and work without the fear of something going off on them.
- Have healthy coping mechanisms: Talk to trusted friends and family, volunteer your time, write, and do fun activities. Do healthy things that will help you cope with your experience.
- Make life Meaningful: Despite the trauma, focus on the positive and what you can do to make the world a better place. Bad things will always happen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t speak up about social injustice or do good deeds in your community.
How to Help Someone Who Has Survived a Mass Shooting
If you know a secondary victim, this is what you can do:
- Listen with empathy. Don’t offer advice unless asked.
- Look for a Community Crisis Response of some kind.
- Point to some internet resources such as The Rebels Project. It was founded by survivors of the Columbine High School shooting in the wake of 2012 Aurora theater shooting to provide support for those who have gone through a similar experience.
I’ve never experienced a mass shooting, and I can only imagine the emotional rollercoaster that survivors go through in the aftermath. What I do know is if someone is a survivor of a mass shooting, the best thing I can do is to listen to compassion and empathy.
PTSD Research Quarterly