Recent news coverage of a Sandy Hook parent’s and Parkland students’ suicides have led people to question the trauma that stems from school shootings and how it affects victims.
On March 17, a Parkland shooting survivor, a senior at the time of the shooting, took her own life. A day later, another student who survived the Parkland shooting killed himself. Just a week later, the father of a six-year-old victim of the Sandy Hook school shooting committed suicide.
On April 17, Denver schools were closed due to shooting threats from an 18-year-old woman with a Columbine “Infatuation,” FBI Denver special agent in charge Dean Phillips told NPR.
The likelihood of being killed at school is small, (The Washington Post estimates the chance to about one in 614 million), but school shootings are driving policy, circulating the news and inducing fears in the minds of children and teens.
“Because it’s so horrific and scary and important, it dominates the media and therefore our minds, and we think of it as a much bigger threat than it is,” Jamie Howard, PhD, director of the Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute, said.
Most are aware of how trauma and guilt following school shootings affects survivors, but school shootings have also become an ever increasing source of anxiety among high school students.
“This is my eighth year at Webster. I’ve definitely seen more anxiety in students… I’m sure that mass shootings is just like one piece of the puzzle,” Gibbs said.
“It’s just such a present reality that follows kids like myself around all the time at school… Maybe I’m just anxious, but it feels inevitable, like if it’s going to happen it’ll happen, and there’s only so much we can do,” a junior who chose to be anonymous said.
At the high school, administration discusses what to do during a shooting with classes, posters differentiate between lock downs and lockouts, and staff goes through some active drills.
About preparation, Gibbs said, “Thinking through ‘How would I handle this?’ in that situation. If you were just aware in each of your classrooms about like, ‘Okay how would I handle this?’ ‘What would I do?’ Having plans can sometimes be reassuring to people.”
Junior Elizabeth Zareh said, “It helps me to practice or think about what I would do during emergencies, and although it may make me anxious, it is important.”
However, some schools have started conducting active shooter drills with students involved.
“That could just feed their anxiety. They could just obsess about it. You could be like, ‘Okay, I can’t sit here because I might get shot if I sit here.’ And all of the sudden you have all these things where you’re obsessing about how exactly things are going to be so that you keep yourself from getting killed in a school shooting– this hypothetical school shooting. So it could actually create more anxiety in some people,” Gibbs said.
Junior Ashley Cimarolli agreed students being involved in active shooter drills would not be beneficial.
“It’s stressful enough knowing the possibility might happen,” Cimarolli said.
“I just feel helpless sometimes, like there’s nothing I can do but sit and hope nothing goes wrong,” the anonymous student said.
When things do go wrong, it can be hard to address the extent of the effects on victims.
“Dying in a tragic way is unexpected, and it leaves some confusion and questions. . . I think there are just a lot of questions that people have of like, ‘Why did I live?’ ‘Why did they die?’ and maybe “They should have stayed alive, and I should have died,’” Gibbs said. “I think there’s a level of pressure to make the most of your life since the other person doesn’t have that option.”
This is where the trauma can begin to take over. Gibbs said, “Therapy is always essential.”
“In situations where it’s a more tragic death, I think getting therapy and having somebody to really process through all those questions and everything in your head is really helpful. Otherwise it just sits, and it spins, and it feeds itself, and it just gets worse. Next thing you know, you’re all caught up in your head, and you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t deserve to be alive,” Gibbs said.
“There’s a specific therapy called trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is your traditional therapy. The whole ‘What’s the irrational thought? Let’s challenge the irrational thought. Let’s change our thinking. If we change our thinking, we can change our feelings, and then we can change our behavior.’ That whole thought, feelings, behavior circle, so it’s that but with a trauma focus. I think if you’ve experienced a tragic death, going through Trauma focused CBT is really helpful,” Gibbs said.
This will be Elise Keller’s second year on ECHO staff, but she made several contributions while taking journalism class her freshman year.
This is feature editor Lindsey Bennett’s first year on ECHO staff, but she made several contributions while taking journalism class her sophomore year. She has attended JournalismSTL’s Spring Conference and MIPA’s J-Day.