The people of Aurora Colorado have endured intense trauma after a gunman opened fire in a movie theater killing 12 and injuring over 50 people. Healing physical injuries is only one part of coming to terms with such a tragedy. Often such trauma leaves deep psychological wounds as well.
Today more people are familiar with psychological illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is triggered by experiencing, witnessing, or confronting an event involving death, serious injury to self or others. Symptoms may include insomnia, hyperawareness of surroundings, experiencing flashbacks, and distress when confronted with cues that remind the individual of the traumatic event. Symptoms must last for one month to be considered PTSD. If the symptoms persist for less than one month, it is referred to as acute stress disorder.
Usually when we think of stress disorder victims, we think of those who were in the immediate vicinity of the traumatic event, in this case, people sitting in theatre 9 and those first responders to the shooting. What most people don’t realize is that PTSD can affect people who were not in the immediate area, but were in other ways connected to the event.
I attended Northern Illinois University as a freshman when the February 14th shooting happened in Cole Hall. In the aftermath of the shooting, students and faculty would talk about where they were when it happened, how close they were to the shooting.
Some of the stories I heard were:
“I was a student taking that class, but I was feeling lazy and didn’t go to class that day.”
“I had class in Cole Hall an hour earlier than the shooting.”
“I was walking in the middle of campus when I saw the police arrive and saw kids walking out with bloody shirts.”
Most likely, the people in Aurora Colorado are sharing similar stories about how they or someone they care about was maybe in a different theater watching Batman that night or wanted to go, but couldn’t get tickets for some reason. Even though these people may not have been in theatre 9, that does not make them invulnerable to stress disorders.
Blanchard et al. (2004) studied undergraduates from Albany, New York, Augusta, Georgia and Fargo North Dakota immediately following the September 11th terrorist attacks. What they found is that geographical proximity to the event increased likelihood of PTSD and acute stress disorder symptoms. Connectedness to victims and exposure to television about September 11th was also a predictor of PTSD in some cases.
We now know that biological factors can also impact a person’s likelihood of developing a stress disorder. Mercer et al. (2011) found that variations in individuals’ serotonin transport genes correlated with NIU students’ likelihood to develop PTSD and acute stress disorder after the February 14th shooting.
Serotonin is a mood regulating neurotransmitter. The serotonin transporter works to move serotonin from the synapse (the space between neurons) back to the neuron it came from so it can be reused. Certain genes make this transporter not function as efficiently. People who have a lower functioning serotonin transporter are more likely to develop stress disorders following trauma.
Sometimes after an event such as the Colorado shooting, people are ridden with survivor’s guilt, questioning why they were spared while others died or were physically injured. People who experience this may also feel guilty about seeking any sort of counseling services because others were more closely involved to the tragedy than they were who need counseling more.
The biggest piece of advice I can give to those who may be affected by the shooting in less immediate ways is to talk about how you are feeling. Talking to your support system of family and friends helps. If you feel like you may be experiencing flashbacks, can’t sleep, or if you feel particularly jumpy, do seek out professional help. The sooner you talk to somebody, the better off you will be in the long run. Bottling up emotions after a traumatic event is bad for your mental health. Even if you don’t feel any acute stress disorder symptoms right now, sometimes PTSD can occur way after the event, popping up unexpectedly. If you feel on the fence about going, just go. It’s better to get a “check-up” just in case.
The aftermath of mass shootings is a difficult time not only for the immediate victims but also the community. Right now is the time to keep the people of Aurora, Colorado in our thoughts as they work towards building a new normal. Although a sense of normalcy may seem far off in the distance, with time and healing, it gets better.
Blanchard, E. B., Kuhn, E., Rowell, D. L., Hickling, E. J., Wittrock, D., Rogers, R. L., et al. (2004). Studies of the vicarious traumatization of college students by the September 11th attacks. Effects of proximity, exposure and connectedness. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 42(2), 191–205.
Mercer, K. B., Orcutt, H. K., LasQuinn, J. F., Fitzgerald, C. A., Conneely, K. N., Barfield, R. T., Gillespie, C. F., & Ressler, K. J. (2011). Acute and posttraumatic stress symptoms. ARCH GEN PSYCHIATRY, Retrieved from http://www.niu.edu/~horcutt/trauma_study/mercer et al arch of gen psychiatry 2011.pdf