The Worst Has Happened – Now What?
A campus’ success in recovering from mass violence or some other tragedy will depend on how thoroughly it has planned for the long-term aftermath, and that requires understanding the changes brought on by a traumatic experience.
With unrelenting frequency, we hear of rampage shootings or targeted violence on a campus or in a public building. The threat is a serious one. While statistically it is unlikely that your school, university or hospital will be hit, you are wise not to play the odds.
Institutions and agencies across the country have developed detailed strategic plans for crisis prevention, response, evacuation and reunification of families.Many include plans to have counselors available for a period of time after the event but overlook the need to address the ongoing psychological challenges that linger long after the crisis has been resolved.
The consequences of a mass shooting are far-reaching. I say this from experience. On April 20, 1999, my younger son survived the attack at Columbine High School. Fifteen died that day, 23 were injured and everyone associated with the school experienced varying degrees of trauma and loss, as did the entire community.
That morning, my husband and I waited quietly at a staging area set up for families, hoping for word that our son was alive. Over three hours later we learned that he had been rescued by SWAT officers. We rejoiced, thinking the worst was over. We were totally unprepared for the full extent of disruption that lay ahead.
For many associated with the school, April 20th isn’t the day of the Columbine tragedy but merely the beginning of it. Lives were disrupted and futures changed. As happens in other communities stuck by mass violence, there was an increase in suicide, domestic violence, substance abuse, conflict and divorce.
With the first-hand understanding that comes from traumatic experience, I committed to research and share information about the long-term effects of a mass shooting on a community. I wanted to help others know what to expect and be better prepared to respond.
Planning in advance for the unthinkable can make a real difference in the lives of those affected. Systems need to be in place to protect people exposed to a mass shooting, but designing safety protocols and evacuation plans is merely the first step. A school, university or hospital’s success in recovering from mass violence will depend on how thoroughly it has planned for the long-term aftermath, and that requires understanding the changes brought on by a traumatic experience.
It should be noted that although this article focuses on the traumatic effects of mass shootings, other crises can have a similar impact on the people in your campus community. Any event that is life-threatening or life-altering can cause trauma. These events include natural disasters like earthquakes or tornados, catastrophic events (manmade and otherwise, both intentional and unintentional), chemical spills, abusive relationships, terrorism, suicide clusters, environmental disasters and more. Trauma is trauma, regardless of its source. Recommendations in this article apply to responding to other traumatizing situations as well.
The Physical Origins of Traumatic Stress
Trauma is a natural, neuro-chemical response to any experience in which a person feels powerless and overwhelmed in the face of life-threatening or life-changing circumstances. The perception of vulnerability and helplessness triggers the trauma response, even if the threat never materializes. Those who experience, witness or identify closely with trauma victims are also at risk.
The brain is hard wired for survival, so the moment a threat is first perceived, all information being taken in – sights, sounds, smells, even taste and touch – are deeply encoded. These memories serve as an early-warning system to identify and then respond to future threats. This biological response to threatening situations can trigger traumatic memories and flashbacks that persist over time.
Trauma is the result of changes that are real and have a physical, neurological basis. It is not a matter of willpower to overcome them. People living with trauma cannot simply forget about it, get over it, or move on and get back to normal. That simply doesn’t happen. For trauma survivors, the old normal doesn’t exist anymore.