A psychologist says when it comes to school shootings, we need to normalize mental health care and bear witness to the survivors' pain
- A gunman killed three students and injured five other people at Michigan State University on Monday.
- Students who've been through shootings like this one are likely to experience post-traumatic stress.
A shooting that killed three students at Michigan State University and injured five other people on Monday night also inflicted trauma on individuals and a nation reeling — constantly, it seems — from gun violence.
"The fact that this is the second mass shooting that I have now lived through is incomprehensible," a 21-year-old who said they also survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School a decade ago said in a TikTok.
For another person, the trauma was more recent. "14 months ago I had to evacuate from Oxford High Schol when a fifteen year old opened fire and killed four of my classmates and injured seven more. Tonight, I am sitting under my desk at Michigan State Univeristy, once again texting everyone 'I love you,'" they tweeted. "When will this end?"
Claire Papoulias, a sophomore at Michigan State, told the "Today" show that she was in class when the shooter came into the back of her lecture hall. "I will never forget the screams of my classmates because they were screaming in pain for help," Papoulias said.
Papoulias added that she called her mom when she thought she was going to die. Her mother, Natalie Papoulias, said she could hear gunshots in the background of that call. "It was my worst nightmare," Natalie Papoulias said.
Julie Kaplow, the executive director of the Trauma and Grief Center at Children's Hospital New Orleans, said that shootings like the one at Michigan State can be traumatic even for people who weren't there. "It is likely that they will experience some symptoms of post-traumatic stress," she said.
Post-traumatic stress is normal
Kaplow said post-traumatic stress is a typical response of students who had to shelter in place, helpless parents who listened to gunfire over the phone, or even survivors following the news from afar.
"Post-traumatic stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event, and in the context of the shooting, it is understandable that victims will experience this level of distress," Kaplow said.
Kaplow said that most people with post-traumatic stress don't develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but some will. If the impact of the event continues to interfere with a person's day-to-day life for a month or more, they should seek treatment for PTSD.
We need to bear witness
Kaplow said that while it's tempting to look away from news of tragedies like the shooting, it's essential that people be willing to see the pain and suffering that victims are going through.
"One of the most important things that friends and family can do to support victims is to bear witness to their emotional pain and be there to listen," Kaplow said.
Victims don't want to feel like a burden, she added, so "simply reassuring them that you are there to support them and eager to listen if they want to talk can go a very long way."
There's a difference between trauma and grief
Many students who lived through the shooting will have to cope with both the trauma of the shooting and the grief of losing their friends. Kaplow said it's important to recognize the difference between those responses.
"While the traumatic aspects of the event will usually recede over time, the grief remains," Kaplow said. "We can do more to help individuals who are grieving by recognizing that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that there is no set timeline for grief."
Mental-health support can help with both. "We can help to destigmatize mental-health treatment by recognizing that anyone in this situation is likely to need extra support, and it's OK, and actually wise, to ask for help," Kaplow said.
Parents should monitor what their kids see
News like this can be difficult to process, especially for children. Parents should be mindful of what young children might glean from media coverage and remind kids to "look for the helpers."
"We also want to make sure to use simple and straightforward language when talking to kids about these events and allow them to guide the conversation as much as possible so that we're meeting them where they are and not giving them more information than they can handle," Kaplow said.
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