On Monday, the father of a Sandy Hook mass shooting victim was found dead in Newtown, Connecticut – an apparent suicide. Within the past week, two teenage survivors of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting took their own lives. The family of one of the teens said she had been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and what the family described as survivor’s guilt. After the news crews and the national conversations move on after mass shooting events, mental trauma remains. And these recent deaths have some asking whether more could be done.
Anka Vujanovic is director of the Trauma and Stress Studies Center at the University of Houston. She says the risk of PTSD is greater after severe trauma, like that experienced during a mass shooting.
“PTSD is one of few psychiatric conditions that can differentiate people who think about suicide or death, and those who actually engage in suicidal behavior,” Vujanovic says.
She says those who survive mass shootings are at risk for survivors’ guilt, detachment and feelings that no one can understand what they are experiencing. She says that when people feel they can’t connect with others in their daily lives, intervention with individuals is often needed, and that it is needed early and often.
Vujanovic says cognitive behavioral therapy is the treatment of choice for those experiencing PTSD after a mass shooting. Health professionals help patients confront their feelings in safe, therapeutic environments.
“Cognitive processing therapy focuses on helping people to enhance their awareness of changes or exacerbations and negative beliefs about themselves, others or the world, as a result of the trauma,” she says.
Vujanovic says she isn’t so sure that those who survive mass shootings are receiving enough help to deal with the trauma.
“I do think we need more integrated support and education about this in our day-to-day lives,” she says, “so, in schools, in places of work, we need to send a stronger message societally to let these survivors know that they’re not alone.”
Vujanovic says reaching out to a local crisis center can be a first step to healing, but that longer-term responses are important, too, including bringing resources to those who need them.
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available anytime at 1-800-273-8255.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.
Support for Texas Standard’s ”Spotlight on Health” project is provided by St. David’s Foundation.