Stories of mass shootings are tragically commonplace in the United States. There isn’t a week that goes by without a gut-wrenching story in the news about another senseless act of violence. In 2022 alone, the Gun Violence Archive recorded 647 mass shootings in the United States. As of mid-November of 2023, the nation has seen just over 600 mass shootings. Restaurants, movie theaters, churches, shopping malls, schools and community parks are just a few of the settings in which we’ve watched horrifying events unfold, with victims ranging from the very young to the elderly.
As jarring as those numbers may be, the reality is that the majority of people will never see first-hand the devastation of a shooting. Most people will never lose a loved one to a senseless act of violence, and fewer still will find themselves in an active-shooter situation.
Even so, mass shootings are a collective trauma shared by everyone in the nation. Whether an incident occurred in an individual’s hometown or the other side of the country, everyone sees their own loved ones in the faces of the victims, feels the heartbreak of those who lost family members, and wonders if their local school, shopping center or park will be the next one on the news. While mass shootings account for only a small portion of gun-related deaths in the nation, they’re disturbing because they happen unexpectedly in the most routine of places, leaving everyone feeling vulnerable.
There’s no simple answer for putting an end to mass shootings, nor is there an easy roadmap for navigating the feelings that stem from such an event. However, caring for mental health and building resilience is vital on both a personal and a community level.
Understanding the Psychological Impact of Mass Shootings
It’s impossible to separate gun violence from the psychological impact it has on individuals and communities. While those who experience a mass shooting first-hand are uniquely impacted by the event, the entire nation shares in their shock, grief and fear.
The Mental Health Impact on Those with Firsthand Experience
For the survivors of mass shootings, the overwhelming mental and physical tolls don’t end when the shooting stops. According to the American Psychological Association, about a third of people who witness a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder, meaning that they experience acute stress from the event months after it’s over.
Recovering from an incident such as a shooting typically comes in three phases. The first phase is the acute phase in which the individual experiences feelings of shock, fear, anxiety and helplessness. The intermediate phase often has these same emotions, along with difficulty focusing on tasks and disturbed sleep. Many people develop anxiety and depression as a result of the trauma they experienced and require continuous mental health support. The final stage typically begins several months after the event. During this phase, the individual has periods of adjustment and relapse. Some people report personal growth and feelings of purpose during this time. For others, this phase is marked by debilitating anxiety, flashbacks and self-medication with recreational drugs or alcohol.
While it’s necessary for those who’ve experienced an active-shooter event to move forward, the impact of the event doesn’t disappear overnight. Ongoing support from a mental health care professional is vital for helping them navigate their memories and emotions and develop healthy coping skills.
The Mental Health Impact on the Community
People who weren’t directly exposed to a mass shooting but watched events unfold over the news also experience distress, anxiety and in some cases, PTSD. Most of us go about our days—sitting in our offices, going to restaurants, seeing new movies at the theater— without giving much thought to personal safety. A mass shooting can quickly change that, altering how safe we feel as we navigate day-to-day activities. Our collective list of places that aren’t safe grows, upending our feelings of security.
According to one psychologist, we can look at the effects of gun violence as ripples in a pond, reverberating beyond the direct impact. These “ripples” can cause constant stress, creating unhealthy levels of hypervigilance. Whether people witness these events in their own communities or on the news, they may experience anxiety, worry and sleep disruptions.
Crisis Response: Immediate and Long-Term Mental Health Support
According to one study, those who’ve experienced a mass shooting are at a higher risk for mental health difficulties than those who’ve been victims of other types of trauma, such as natural disasters. In the aftermath of a shooting, it’s vital for the survivors to have access to mental health support. This may be available through their school, workplace or community providers, depending on the nature of the incident.
In the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, it’s important for survivors to have the space to process the event and talk through their feelings. In most cases, it’s beneficial to speak with a licensed mental health care professional who specializes in trauma recovery. During therapy, individuals can learn stress management skills, get help with processing the range of emotions they’re experiencing and work through issues such as survivor’s guilt.
As time passes, mental health support continues to be important for those who’ve survived mass shootings. Individuals may find that they experience flashbacks of the event or they avoid certain places or scenarios that they connect with the trauma. Ongoing mental health support can reduce the likelihood of the individual developing PTSD while providing them with the tools they need to cope with their fears and memories linked to the event.
Community Resilience and Rebuilding Mental Health After Tragedy
While mass shootings have a clear impact on victims and their families, one study shows that they also have a significant impact on the community as a whole. According to research, a community has a 27-point decline in the likelihood of having excellent community well-being, as well as a 13-point decline in the likelihood of overall emotional health four weeks after an incident. This drop is especially pronounced among parents who have children under the age of 18.
There’s little research on the effects of school shootings and the societal impact mass shootings in general have and even less on what communities can do to rebuild in the aftermath of an event. However, there is evidence that communities can build resilience through memorials and vigils that give members the opportunity to reflect on the event and remember the lives lost. For many, local support groups can be a lifeline for navigating the stress, anxiety and grief that arises from a shooting.
Mass shootings are all too commonplace in the United States, bringing immediate and long-term impacts on mental health on a personal and societal level. Finding mental health support is important for survivors, communities and anyone else experiencing the toll of these acts of violence. If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone about a traumatic experience, our mental health care professionals are here to help. Contact us today to connect with a counselor.