Erlanger A. Turner Ph.D.

The Race to Good Health

School Shootings and Youth Mental Health

Research explains how to help youth be resilient after school shootings.

Posted Mar 23, 2018

School shootings in the United States are not a new issue and sadly continue to plague many communities across the country. The recent shooting in Florida has sparked much debate around gun laws and has re-energized many young people to take a stand against gun violence in schools. On March 24, many people across the country will be taking part in the #MarchforOurLives to advocate for more safe school and a call to end mass shootings in school (read more about the mission here).  

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article entitled, “What happens to children who survive school shootings in America?” The article noted that in the last decade, multiple school shootings have resulted in the loss of lives at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and more recently Marjory Stone Douglas. According to the Washington Post, more than 187,000 students have experienced school shootings. In 2018, there have already been a total of 11 school shootings. Clearly, something needs to be done to ensure the safety of children and school personnel.

According to an article published by Lowe & Galea (2017) in the journal Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, mass shootings have a significant negative impact on the mental health functioning of students. This may not be a surprise to many. However, I think we need to be more considerate of these implications when attempting to restore normalcy for students when they return to school. Research indicates that exposure to violence or learning that a close friend or loved one has faced such exposure is associated a range of negative mental health outcomes posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression (Lowe & Galea, 2017). The study reviewed school shootings internationally and found that greater proximity to the attack, direct exposure to the incident (e.g., seeing the event or being injured), and being acquainted with the deceased was associated with more several mental health difficulties. Furthermore, school shootings may have long-term effects on individuals’ health or increased risk for post-incident psychological disorders.

Tips for Promoting Resilience after School Shootings

Far too often, we have been faced with helping children deal with the aftermath of a school shooting. Some children and adolescents may recover quickly, but many take several months to recover from a traumatic experience such as a school shooting. Below are some suggestions from the American Psychological Association on helping youth cope:

Take care of yourself. As a parent, it is important to manage your own emotions and mental health. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. By modeling for your child how to deal with stress and recover from a traumatic event helps with restoring normalcy.

Keep home a safe place. Children, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that your children may come home seeking the safe feeling they have being there. Help make it a place where your children find the solitude or comfort they need. Plan a night where everyone participates in a favorite family activity.

Talk with your child. Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events such as a school shooting. Be sure the discussion is age appropriate. It may be easier to talk with your child when engaging in daily activities (e.g., riding in the car or eating dinner).

  • Start the conversation. Let them know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the event.
  • Listen to their thoughts and point of view. Don't interrupt—allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.
  • Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort, and support. Provide the type of physical or emotional support that best fits your child’s needs.

Watch for signs of mental health distress. Many children may experience shock, fear, worries or sadness after a school shooting. As noted in the article written by Lowe and Galea, children may have different reactions depending on direct or indirect exposure to traumatic events.  If you recognize that your child’s emotional functioning is getting worse after a few months, be sure to seek professional advice from a mental health provider.

Treatment Locator Resource from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration

Copyright 2018 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.

References

Lowe, S. R., & Galea, S. (2017). The mental health consequences of mass shootings. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 18(1), 62-82.