Traumatic events often leave those who were connected to them with significant mental health consequences. In the case of school shootings, there are many people who are affected by the horrific event. It's not all bad, though. Post-traumatic growth is possible and there are even some mental tools that can be used to help people move through trauma.
Amy Mezulis, PhD, is Professor and Chair of Clinical Psychology at Seattle Pacific University. Her research focuses on identifying physiological and psychological responses to stressful life events as predictors of outcomes such as depression, self-injury, and PTSD. Dr. Mezulis’ research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health since 2013.
JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?
AM: On June 5th, 2014, our university suffered a traumatic campus shooting, resulting in the death of one student and the injury of two others. We wanted to better understand the mental and emotional impact of this traumatic event on the campus community, and identify factors associated with both adverse (e.g. post-traumatic stress) and adaptive (e.g. post-traumatic growth) outcomes.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
AM: We asked for survey responses from university students, faculty, and staff approximately four months following the campus shooting. While we anticipated that many individuals would report posttraumatic stress responses such as intrusive thoughts and negative emotions, we also wanted to examine any post-traumatic growth responses. Using cognitive models of posttraumatic responses, we examined if different types of thoughts—unintentional, intrusive thoughts of the traumatic event versus intentional, purposeful thoughts—would determine which individuals would experience post-traumatic stress or posttraumatic growth.
Lastly, we wondered if being closer to the shooting, either physically (in the building, outside the building, on or off campus) or emotionally (knowing the shooter, knowing a student injured, knowing someone in the building at the time of the shooting) would determine who would experience these intrusive versus intentional thought patterns and thus different mental health outcomes.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
AM: Students, faculty, and staff who were physically or emotionally close to the shooting were more likely to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. The more emotionally close to the shooting a person was, the more likely they were to also experience post-traumatic growth. The difference lay in how the person cognitively processed the traumatic event. People who reported unintentional, intrusive thoughts following the shooting were more likely to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. People who were able to deliberately and purposefully think about the shooting and its impact were more likely to experience growth.
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives?
AM: Traumatic events such as campus shootings are becoming all too common. While individuals cannot control their exposure to such events, they can attempt to deploy adaptive thinking patterns after that promote a better understanding of how this event has affected them.
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others?
AM: If you or someone you know has experienced a traumatic event, it is very possible that you will experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which can include:
- Intrusive and unwanted thoughts
- Avoidance of things that remind you of the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts and mood
- Being easily startled or “on alert”
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
These symptoms alone are a good reason to talk with a support person or a therapist. However, our findings show that even if these symptoms are mild or fleeting, spending time reflecting and processing a traumatic event can result in positive growth.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
AM: Our current research examines how physiological and psychological responses to both negative/traumatic events and positive events predict depressive symptoms, self-injury, and health-related behaviors among adolescents and young adults. We hope to continue to better understand vulnerabilities that may predispose a person, under conditions of stress, to experience both positive and negative mental health outcomes.
Wozniak, J. D., Caudle, H. E., Harding, K., Vieselmeyer, J., & Mezulis, A. H. (2020). The effect of trauma proximity and ruminative response styles on posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth following a university shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(3), 227-234. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000505