How to Support a Victim of a Mass Shooting
This past weekend was brutal – two mass shootings in the space of 20 hours, leaving a combined 31 people dead and 51 wounded. The country hadn’t even had time to recover from the July 28th Gilroy, California shooting at their annual Garlic Festival which left 3 dead and 13 wounded. Mass shootings are becoming more and more of an everyday occurrence in American’s lives.
We now have Active Shooter drills at our schools, in our workplaces and in locations where the public is known to congregate. Most American’s have been exposed to the popular refrain about how to respond during an active shooter situation: “Run. Hide. Fight.”
But what about how to support the survivors of mass shootings – the wounded, the witnesses who hid under desks or in stock rooms, the family members of victims, the employees who have to return to the scene of these shootings and are expected to perform “as normal”? Each of them has experienced trauma as a result of these shootings. And psychological trauma can be just as life altering as a bullet wound.
As these events become more frequent, we have more and more victims in our communities suffering from psychological trauma. But there’s no three-word refrain for helping address that need. The psychological aftereffects of trauma are invisible. There are no casts, bandages or crutches to identify these survivors. As a result, their needs tend to go unmet.
They can also go unmet because they are viewed as unworthy of attention. Perhaps they are seen as character flaws rather than emotional injuries. Maybe mental health isn’t an acceptable topic of conversation. There may be a judgment that someone who developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to witnessing a shooting isn’t as worthy of attention as those with physical injuries.
We need to acknowledge that psychological trauma is a real and devastating aftereffect of a mass shooting event. The consequences of unresolved trauma can be significant to both the individual survivor and the community at large – mental illness can develop, relationships can be torn apart, employees can be unable to return to work, grief can shut someone once stable and productive people down for years to come. Our whole community loses when we have a mass shooting and ignore the psychological aftereffects of that trauma.
Absent the hope that any meaningful gun control reform will be implemented, it’s time all of us learn how to provide basic trauma support to survivors of a mass shooting. So let’s cover some fundamentals that each of us can learn to support these individuals.
Understanding Trauma and Individual Reponses
First, we need to acknowledge that people react differently to the same event. This is because trauma is defined subjectively. There is no universal definition of trauma that allows any of us to determine if someone else’s experience should or should not be defined as valid. We cannot dismiss someone’s psychological distress as invalid because it wouldn’t be traumatic to us. There’s no room for judgment in identifying trauma survivors.
Second, there’s no cookie cutter solution to helping every trauma survivor. Each individual will have different needs, depending on their experience with the mass shooting, their current life circumstances and their prior history of exposure to other trauma.
Let’s unpack that a bit:
Because trauma is subjective two individuals experiencing almost an identical mass shooter situation can have two vastly different responses.
Some people are more resilient than others, because of their life experience or their temperament.
Individuals who have a healthy support system will generally be able to “rebound” from trauma more quickly that those without a support system.
People who are in a difficult life experience at the time of the shooting can take longer to recover from a traumatic event and can have more serious aftereffects. For example, if someone is in the midst of a financial, marital or housing crisis at the time of the shooting, the trauma may hit them harder.
Individuals with a prior history of traumatic experiences may be more vulnerable to developing life altering aftereffects. In discussing this point it’s important to understand that trauma is cumulative. It’s not like a cold where we recover completely and are not more at risk of getting a cold in the future. Traumatic experiences stack up, creating a vulnerable population of survivors of multiple trauma. This would be mitigated if an individual had been able to process prior traumas through self-help or professional mental health assistance. Some trauma survivors can become very resilient – future events won’t impact their responses to new events.
Even though there’s no cookie cutter response to helping the survivors of a mass shooting there are some good guidelines to follow
The most important priority is to assess and establish safety. This is a universal “first step” with survivors because trauma is all about a lack of safety. A traumatic event can shake an individual’s sense of safety in the world. After a trauma, survivors can feel suicidal, engage in numbing behavior -- such as consuming drugs and/or alcohol – engage in self-harm and/or become so shut down that they are unable to function.
Once you have assessed a survivor’s personal safety needs you can help them get those needs met. Can their local doctor help? Is there a help line set up for survivors of the mass shooting? Is there a community services department that can help? Are any other local agencies providing support services? If someone is suicidal it’s critical that you help them access psychological help immediately. Stay with the survivor until they get that help.
Once safety has been established here are some other ways you can support a mass shooting survivor:
Sit with them – some survivors don’t want to talk about their experience but still want a safe, supportive individual to be present with them. Never force anyone to talk about their experience if they aren’t ready to do that.
Listen – when a survivor is ready to talk be that listening ear for them. Let the survivor control the conversation. This isn’t a time to satisfy your curiosity by asking for details that you want to know. The goal of listening is to help the survivor feel heard and supported. I teach all of our coaches to convey the following four statements with their words, facial expressions, body language and emotional responses: I see you. I hear you. You matter. I care. You don’t have to say the words but do convey them by the way you interact with the survivor.
Create a calm environment for the survivor – experiencing a trauma will activate someone’s Fight or Flight response system, resulting in their body being flooded with chemicals that tell them to be ready for a life-threatening event. That system can be re-activated frequently after the trauma. Give the survivor someplace quiet and calm to recover. It is essential that they have at least one safe, calm place that they can readily access when they need it. What do they need in that environment? Music? A soft blanket? Low light? Do they need you to screen their phone calls or limit visitors?
Help them learn grounding skills — these will help them manage flashbacks, dissociation and trauma memories. Breathing exercises and guided visualizations can be powerful. Dr. Sarah Allen has a good list of grounding strategies on her website. Dr. Timothy Legg has another list here on Healthline.
Help them make a list of things that they find soothing, comforting and calming.— When human’s experience a trauma their pre-frontal cortex goes “offline”. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning and logic. If they feel stressed and anxious, they are less likely able to remember what they can do to calm themselves. Help them make a list and put it someplace prominent in their living environment so they can see it and implement a strategy even when their pre-frontal cortex is offline.
Offer help with basic tasks and errands – going out into another public scenario might feel too overwhelming to a survivor. They may not be sure they can be safe. Offer to run errands for them. Bring over meals for them. Offer to do some laundry. Can you babysit or walk the dog so that they can have more free time to recover?
Provide support and encouragement without requiring a response – send text messages letting them know that you’re there if you need them, bring them their favorite Starbucks drink or email them encouragement. Do this without expectation that they will respond. Be a giver without expecting anything in return.
Help them access professional resources if they need that to help them recover – are their local support groups? Do they need to connect with a therapist? Can you help them make an appointment with their family doctor to discuss ongoing symptoms they are experiencing as a result of the trauma.
Encourage them to process the trauma in ways that feel safe to them – a mass shooting has the potential to create thoughts and feelings that last for weeks or months. Help them find an outlet for those. Can they journal? Would a kickboxing class help them express some of their anger and frustration? Does hiking or gardening help soothe their worries?
Access fun and funny – sometimes we all need a laugh or something fun to break the tension. Don’t force the survivor to do something they don’t want to do. But a funny movie or game of Monopoly might provide even a small break from the aftereffects of trauma. Every small break helps.
Move at the pace of the survivor – all of us process trauma in different ways and in different timelines. It’s not up to us to determine if a survivor should be “over it”. If the aftereffects of the trauma last more than a month that is a good time to seek professional mental health services. But it’s never a good time to set a time limit on anyone’s recovery.
Tend to your own needs, too – helping a survivor of a mass shooting can be stressful, especially if you are their primary source of support. Don’t forget to take care of yourself to ensure you aren’t depleted and in danger of having your own mental or physical health crisis.
Trauma can make any of us feel powerless. We couldn’t stop the mass shooting, so how can we control our recovery from it? Becoming part of the recovery process for the survivors can give us a feeling of empowerment. We can all be part of the healing process.
You can access and download a two page summarized and bullet-pointed Resource Page for this article here.