In Aurora, Expect PTSD to Spread Far Beyond the Movie Theater

Like all such tragedies, the mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater will claim more victims than is immediately apparent. In the coming weeks and months, many people who were somehow involved in the event but physically unhurt will find themselves experiencing the sometimes debilitating symptoms of PTSD.


Who will experience this psychological trauma, and what’s the best way to help them? A pair of recently published studies examining the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which claimed 32 lives, offer some clues.

A team of researchers led by Virginia Tech’s Michael Hughes surveyed 4,639 of the school’s students three to four months after the tragedy. The researchers found 15.4 percent were experiencing high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms (which can include flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, agitation or emotional detachment).

Those with the highest odds of experiencing PTSD symptoms were students who knew someone who was killed or injured in the attack, along with those who were unable “to confirm the safety of friends” as the events unfolded.

The latter finding “highlights the important role of extended periods of worry and fear over the safety of others,” the researchers write in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy. “This finding has important implications for the content of post-event screening and intervention.

“Risk screening should include gathering information not only about direct exposure to trauma, loss, and injury to self and others, but also should include information about the extent and severity of worry about the safety of loved ones and friends.”

This suggests that—along, of course, with those who were actually in the theater—parents who knew their children were attending the Colorado screening, and were uncertain of their child’s fate as they followed media reports of the shooting, are at particular risk of PTSD, and are well-advised to seek counseling.

Talking through one’s feelings is essential to healing after a traumatic event. A study published in April makes the point that texting is not talking, and suggests that as victims of a tragedy are processing what happened to them, they are well-advised to return to an older form of communication: face to face.

James Hawdon and John Ryan of Virginia Tech collected data from 543 Virginia Tech students to assess their emotional and behavioral well-being five months after the shootings. They took special note of how frequently the students communicated with their friends and families in the week following the tragedy, and whether these communications were in-person or “virtual.”

“Results indicate that face-to-face interaction significantly improved well-being,” they write in the journal Traumatology. “However, interacting with friends and family members through e-mail, text messaging, or some form of online communication was unrelated to well-being.”

After a violent incident, “youth need support, especially if they are not imbedded in a strong social network,” they conclude. “Although our findings indicate that virtual interaction is not sufficient at providing support, it is better than receiving no support at all.”

But, they add, “especially with members of the net generation for whom virtual communication is part of their daily lives, we should be careful to not allow virtual interactions to impede face-to-face interactions. Virtual interactions are not as effective as face-to-face interactions in providing stress-buffering support and promoting well-being; therefore, texting, e-mail, IM, and social networking sites can supplement, not replace, old-fashioned human contact.”

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