Beyond the Media: PTSD in Survivors of Mass Shootings

In the wake of all of the seemingly endless and horrific shootings that have occurred lately in the world, I wanted to start by talking about PTSD in survivors of mass shootings. The National Center for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) defines it as a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.

PTSD can be very debilitating to live with, and any victim of trauma can be affected by it. PTSD contrasts other disorders because it is strictly trauma-based. War veterans and victims of sexual assault are very likely to experience PTSD symptoms; however, the lesser talked about demographic (once the media quiets down) is survivors of mass shootings. Let’s talk about the basics of PTSD for a minute.

Symptoms of PTSD aren’t necessarily consistent and will vary per person. Some people experience symptoms directly after the event/experience, some have symptoms that come and go, and some have symptoms that don’t present themselves for months or even years after the trauma. The four main symptoms of PTSD are as follows:

Reliving the event
Memories of a traumatic event can present themselves at any time, with or without warning. Some symptoms associated with this include nightmares, flashbacks (feeling like you’re going through the event again), and triggers like certain sounds, sights, and smells (i.e. a car backfiring, news reports).

Avoiding situations that remind you of the event
You may avoid people or situations that remind you of the event, even sometimes going as far as to try not to think or talk about it.

Negative changes in beliefs and feelings
The way you think about yourself and others may change as a result of the trauma. For example, this may cause you to:

  • Not have positive or loving feelings toward people
  • Avoid relationships
  • Forget parts of or all of the event
  • Have extreme trust issues, like thinking no one is to be trusted

Feeling keyed up (also known as hyperarousal)
You may feel jittery, on edge, always alert and/or on the lookout for danger. This may cause you to be easily startled, have trouble sleeping, have trouble concentrating, or always want your back facing a wall when in a public place.

If you are experiencing these symptoms for 4 weeks or more, find they’re disrupting your work and personal life, or cause you great distress, you may have PTSD. It is possible to get professional help to manage/deal with the symptoms by seeing your doctor or a psychologist.

This is not, under any circumstances, a political post, and I will not comment on gun reform/control. I just know, based on the wide number of people impacted by these shootings, this is something that needs to be talked about. When innocent people are witness to or injured by mass shootings, is there enough support out there for them? Local agencies like

In my research, I’ve found a couple amazing resources:

The Rebels Project, whose mission statement states they seek to embrace, support, and connect survivors of mass tragedy and trauma by creating a safe environment to share unique resources, experiences, and provide education surrounding the varying effects of mass trauma.

The Red Cross also offers a free Disaster Distress Hotline that can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting “TalkWithUs’ to 66746.

If you know of any other resources available to survivors of mass shootings, please let me know, and I’ll update my post accordingly.

I have a personal tie with mass shooting survivors, as I was witness to a shooting in my workplace a few years back, and was only a few feet from the shooters. Now, it still seems logical for people to at least mildly understand people who were witness to and/or injured in an event like this would be traumatized. But for some of that, the trauma is lasting. In my case, in particular, PTSD didn’t rear its ugly head until 5 years down the road, in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.

The following is my recounting of the shooting to which I was a witness in 2012. I did provide a trigger warning just in case, as it is a sensitive topic that even triggered me to write about.

TRIGGER WARNING: Retelling of Experience in Active Shooter Environment

The morning following the Las Vegas shooting, I woke up earlier than normal, and instead of laying in bed and pushing snooze another 12 times, I got up. I’m not sure why this morning was different. I got ready for work and got a cup of coffee, and something in me told me to turn on the morning news. I hardly ever watch the news anymore, because more often than not it’s one heartbreaking story after another about the madness and cruelty of humankind or the biased political agenda of whatever news network is airing stories of the most recent scandals. Other than the weather (which is usually less than accurate) and the occasional heroic tale of an everyday person beating cancer or rescuing a child from a tragic situation, it’s all negative.

Regardless, there I sat, with the remote in my hand and turned on the TV, flipping through the channels until I saw a local news network and put it on. Immediately, my screen was filled with images and videos of what would turn out to be the most deadly mass shooting the United States had seen yet. My heart dropped into my stomach. I watched as live footage of the shooting from different cell phones was played, and survivors were being interviewed by reporters, all of which were understandably visibly shaken and terrified. Recounting what would most likely be the most traumatic thing they’d ever experience.

As I sat watching this and sipping my coffee, I was in a daze, waiting for it to be over, but knowing it wouldn’t anytime soon. This story would be the focus of every news network in the nation for weeks – months, maybe. Reluctantly, I turned off the TV and went to work as normal.

The next few days passed in a blur. I went to work, came home, watched the news, and went to bed. Then woke up and watched the news again. Each day my heart broke more as new information about the shooting was revealed. A few days into this pattern, I started wondering why in the world this was impacting me so heavily. Yes, it is a tragedy, and I should be feeling shocked, heartbroken, and enraged for both the survivors and those who lost their lives at the hand of a mentally unstable person with a powerful weapon.

And then it hit me. It was like in those cartoons I watched as a kid when a character randomly realized something and a lightbulb appeared above its head, lit up, although (of course) there was no source of power for the bulb itself. I suppose, in a way, it’s a metaphor, because your brain is the source of power for the bulb and it’s powered by thoughts coming together after everything being muddled for a period of time.

On January 27, 2012, one day before my birthday, I was working at our local mall when an active shooter situation occurred. Suddenly, my reaction to the most recent shooting makes sense. I thought, Is this PTSD? It can’t be. That was… so long ago.

Then I started questioning my own memory of what happened. Are you sure that really even happened? What if your brain is just looking for a way to reconcile this horrific event and its created this fictional tragedy so you’re now the victim? I started to get uncomfortable with the flowing thoughts, and so I pulled out my computer and started doing some research. I entered very simple search terms in Google and the results came up quicker than I’d hoped.

Two wounded in Visalia Mall shooting; suspects captured

Trial underway in Visalia Mall shooting

Men given life sentence for Visalia Mall shooting

It did happen. I wasn’t imagining things. As soon as I saw those titles, I was flung violently back to January 27, 2012. A day before my 20th birthday.

I had began working at JC Penney in May of 2010. On this day, a Friday, I was scheduled to work. Most of the time when I took my lunch breaks I’d leave the store and get food at the mall’s food court, which was adjacent to JC Penney. Today, though, I was shopping. I was in the women’s department, which is right next to the entrance to the mall. I came across my coworker, Paloma, who was still working, but we started talking. I was shopping, she was cleaning and we just chatted. A few minutes into our conversation, I heard a few short pops. I paused, then looked at Paloma, whose expression showed she heard them too.

I knew the store was undergoing some construction for one reason or another, but I thought they’d finished. ‘Who’d be using a nail gun right now?’ I thought to myself. All of these thoughts, though seemingly calculated and inquisitive, took place over just a few seconds. In my mind seemed like minutes. I’m not sure if I said any of that out loud to Paloma or not. I don’t think I ever had the chance.

By the time I looked back over at Paloma, her face was unreadable. Out of my peripheral, I saw movement – quick movement – that wasn’t there before. People pass leisurely through our store typically, unless they’re stealing something, and even then sometimes they’re leisurely about it. My head whipped to the right, toward the aisle that was connected to the mall’s entrance just a few feet away. What I saw then is when everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Crowds of shoppers were flooding into the store, unorganized, panicked, in uneven clumps. You couldn’t tell if anyone was shopping in groups or by themselves, it was so unorganized. The panic in the air was almost palpable.

Maybe there was screaming. I’m not sure. I can’t remember hearing anything after the gunshots. It’s like adrenaline took over because the flood of people surging through our store was looking for the nearest exit, “every-man-for-themselves” style. 

Paloma and I looked back at each other and I had a realization – those pops I heard were gunshots. They sounded like a nail gun probably because the shooter had a silencer or the acoustics of the mall made the sound of the shots echo in a strange way.

The look we shared was one of mutual understanding – we needed to run, and we needed to run now. We turned on our heels and bolted further into the store to the nearest exit through the men’s department. Neither of us ever agreed we’d stay with each other, but we did. Once out of the store, we ran into the parking lot and hid behind a car, out of sight of the store.

I remember we talked, but I don’t remember what was said. I also remember a woman drove into the parking lot and turned down the aisle where we were hiding. She saw us and our I’m sure panic ridden faces and slowed down. As soon as she rolled down her window, I said something to the effect of ‘You don’t want to go in there right now, we just heard a ton of gunshots’ but I can’t even remember that clearly. She was filled with a visible myriad of emotion, thanked us, and hastily drove out of the parking lot.

We were probably only hiding behind that car for about 3 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. I looked at Paloma, and I told her my boyfriend’s parents’ house was just a few minutes walk down the road so we could go there. But then, somehow, the logic part of my brain kicked in, and I said to her ‘You know what.. we’re going to have to go back inside. The managers are going to be doing a headcount and they’ll be looking for us.’

I could tell by her reaction that is the last thing she wanted to do, and I was on the same page. We slowly and reluctantly walked back to the entrance to the store and stayed right by that exit once inside the Men’s Department. Everything continued to pass in a blur. I picked out that none of our staff had been injured, but some people have, and the suspects were on the loose. The only other thing I heard is that they were closing the store early and we were all free to go.

Now, my story is one of few that are mostly unheard of, and there were injuries, but no tradgedies. Regardless, feelings of terror and helplessness were still similar. I actually had completely forgotten about the events of that day until I saw the footage of the Las Vegas shooting. Once my symptoms started occurring, I was experiencing intense anxiety over every little thing and constantly looking over my shoulder. Some people in my condo association set off fireworks one night and I went into fight or flight mode. I would jump practically through the roof anytime anyone approached me from behind. There’s much more, but those were the main symptoms that prompted me to seek help from a psychologist. That was the best thing I could have done for myself. Since everyone copes with trauma in different ways, I had to (still have to) find ways that work for me, which sometimes includes altering what I already do for myself in the way of self-care.

It’s just one example of many that the way PTSD symptoms are displayed cannot be measured except by the severity and frequency of when they occur. To this day, I still deal with symptoms of PTSD that I have yet to learn to manage. I’m incredibly thankful for the friends, family, and professionals who have helped me through my experience.

 

Friends and Family of Mass Shooting Survivors

If you know someone who is a survivor of a mass shooting, please be cognizant of what you say to them. Be aware of mental health first aid. Understand that just because the traumatic event is over does not under any circumstances mean the trauma is. Many survivors of mass shootings watch others, even their friends and family members, get injured or killed because of these shootings. They themselves may have suffered injuries as well.

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There are also many free courses online for providing assistance to people you know who have gone through traumatic events like this, such as this site.

I just want survivors of mass shootings (or shootings in general) to know:

  1. I see you
  2. I hear you
  3. I understand (to the best ability I can) what you’re going through on an ongoing basis

Please do not ignore symptoms of PTSD. If you think you’re experiencing symptoms, but are scared or unsure, try talking with someone you trust first. But most importantly, please know you are not alone. If the resources I listed above won’t work for you, or you need help finding a hotline or doctor/psychologist/counselor near you, please contact me and I’ll gladly help you find something in your area.

Also, remember a lot of self-care is necessary to manage PTSD symptoms. A great article on to read is 5 Self Care Tips for Abuse and Trauma Survivors. This site is a domestic violence site primarily, but their self-care tips apply to trauma survivors in general.

Love, understanding, empathy, and compassion go a long way in the process of dealing with PTSD. We can’t change the actions of the people around us, sadly, but we can, as survivors, get through these times together. You are never, ever alone.

 

The Great Glass House of Stigma

Mental disorders are one of the leading causes of illness and disability in our world today. In the United States alone, 1 in 5 adults will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives. With all of the research available and proven science available to us, how is it there is still such a stigma surrounding mental illnesses and treatment of such illnesses?

The answer to this question is both multi-faceted and complex, and in my writing, it’s my goal to break down these issues into easy to understand posts. I’ll also be providing links and resources for those seeking treatment/support for mental illnesses, whether for themselves or someone they love. I hope you’ll join me on my journey as I help reveal the real hindrances of present-day healthcare and the stigma tacked on to the terms “mental health” and “mental illness”.

I’m here to make sure people are getting correct and complete information with regard to mental illness. Additionally, as someone who has suffered more than my fair share of mental illnesses, I want to provide you with the resources I wish myself and my family/friends had when I was struggling.

If, at any point during my posts, there’s something I didn’t address or you’d like more information on, please contact me and I’ll be happy to do some research on it.

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There is no health without mental health; mental health is too important to be left to the professionals alone, and mental health is everyone’s business. – Vikram Patel