MSU Prof on Mass Shootings and Mental Health

Sarah LoweThe 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.”


  1. 1st paragraph starts out with a dubious statistic. There have not been 355 mass shootings this year, this is from a sub-reddit on ,have you ever looks at Reddit? As soon as I saw the source I knew this number was screwy. Reddit has absolutely zero credibility.

    Even Mother Jones has weighed in on this .. “There’s been nowhere near 355 mass shootings in 2015, and according to Mother Jones editor Mark Folman, there have been exactly four.

  2. I believe it’s a mistake and a deflection to link the San Bernadino shooting – and even some others at abortion clinics to the mental health issues noted in this article. Only because the likelihood that these crimes are driven largely by ideological issues and are frequently religious based from those acting on very strong beliefs.

    The San Bernadino crime was directly tied to violent jihadistic Islamic callings through ISIS. The killers believed they were following the word of the Quran.

    Similarly, Christian activists killing people at abortion clinics also believe they are doing gods work as the bible instructs them — in order to save babies. They believe they are stopping murderers.

    These should be distinguished between school shootings like Colombine and other random mass killings and acts where alienation, depression and personal anger are the drivers – even if they then allege the voice of god told them to do it.

    Those acting on behalf of a faith or a belief system compared to those driven by inner demons may ultimately have some of the same psychopathic qualities to ignore human suffering. But when we see violence tied to radical Islam, or to Christian fundamentalism…I think we respond differently to these group insanities. That’s opposed to the unpredictability from individuals who lose it and then go off killing and and acting totally crazy in some random display or workplace violence.

  3. “I think we respond differently to these group insanities.”

    —why? delusional psychotics are delusional psychotics. ascribing a scale of moral relativism to these crimes is grotesque…

  4. More research should be done in order to understand the actual causes and consequences of such shootings. sad thing is that such incedents are related with islam while holy quran clearly says that if a person kills one person(unlawfully) he kills whole humanity. if one person saves the life of one person, he saves whole humanity. for more on this topic plz visit

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