The mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., last week was by anyone’s definition a tragedy. But what is perhaps more tragic is that it was the 355th mass shooting in the United States this year, and the second that took place that very day.
These grim statistics – which average out to one mass shooting a day in this country – are making Americans anxious and afraid. Dr. Sarah Lowe, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Montclair State University, has been studying the mental health consequences of large-scale traumatic events, including mass shootings, and how these events affect individuals and communities.
“Experiencing fear and anxiety makes sense given what’s going on,” she tells Baristanet. “But when having these thoughts, it’s important that we don’t push them away or think ‘I’m being crazy.’ We need to accept them for what they are; this type of non-judgmental acceptance of anxious thoughts and feelings is a way of coping.”
It’s not surprising that those who survived or witnessed a mass shooting have more serious levels of anxiety and fear than the average person, but there is little research on these survivors, as most studies in this area focus on the mental health of the shooters.
Earlier this year, Lowe and Sandro Galea, Dean and Professor of Epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, published a review of the empirical literature on this topic in the journal Trauma, Violence and Abuse. They identified only 49 peer-reviewed studies in the aftermath of 15 mass shooting incidents, 13 of which occurred in the United States. The results indicated that survivors and affected community members had elevated levels of a range of psychological symptoms, including posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety.
It also found that women and lower income earners are likely to have worse reactions, as are those who were already struggling mentally. People who have a strong social support networks tend to do better, Lowe says, but interestingly, if they spend a lot of time talking about the traumatic event with other survivors of these events, they tend to have worse outcomes, perhaps because they spend too much time focusing on the incident.
“Hearing about others’ experiences can be like secondary exposure to trauma,” Lowe explained. “It can be a contagion effect and can trigger more anxiety.”
Only five studies have looked beyond affected communities to broader psychological impacts of mass shootings. Although the research is sparse, studies to date have suggested that these incidents can lead to widespread increases in fears and decreases in perceived safety, at least in the short-term. Notably, no study in Lowe and Galea’s review was conducted on a mass shooting incident after 2008 – which means the study excludes Newtown, Charleston, Aurora, Fort Hood and San Bernardino – some of the worst incidents in this country since mass shootings began.
Lowe hopes that recent effort by Doctors for America and members of Congress to speak out against the Dickey Amendment, which has prevented federal funding for research on gun violence for the past 20 years, are successful (even the bill’s namesake wants it changed).
“More research is needed to understand both the causes and consequences of mass shootings in the United States and beyond,” she says. “The results could help us mitigate their mental health consequences and prevent them from occurring in the first place.”