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United by grief: How mass shootings affect everyone

Posted on 06-15-16 in Coping, PTSD, Trauma

United by grief: How mass shootings affect everyone

As Americans, we have become intimately familiar with mass shootings. It seems as though every month, a new tragedy hits us, sending the country reeling.

Last Sunday, we have reached an unfortunate milestone: We have experienced the most deadly shooting in all of U.S. history thus far. At least 49 people were killed and 53 were injured when a man opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The shooter, a Muslim, pledged allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call he made during the shooting. Recent evidence has indicated that the shooter himself was gay and a regular visitor of the night club.

As with every mass shooting, the consequences of this terrible act have resonated across various groups in society.

The people who were there

The people who were at the nightclub that night and made it out safely — the survivors — will have to live with this trauma for the rest of their lives. Although most people will never experience an event this horrific, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that roughly 60 percent of all men and 50 percent of all women will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.

Not everyone who was present will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although some will. (The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that only 7 or 8 percent of the population will develop PTSD during their lifetime — a mere fraction of the people who experience trauma.) These people will live with persistent fear, horror, anger or guilt and may withdraw from the world and their support networks. These people will need help and understanding. While PTSD is not curable, it is treatable.

Individuals who do not develop PTSD from this event will nonetheless suffer, especially over the course of the next few months. Heart of Florida United Way and the Orlando VA Medical Center are currently offering counselors for people involved in the attacks.

The first responders

We expect our first responders to be strong, but few things can prepare a person for witnessing an unprecedented tragedy.

“There was an expectation from at least a part of the population that said, ‘Well, they’re police officers. They should expect this type of thing. Tough it up. Get a thicker skin,’” explained Eric Brown to USA Today. Brown is a lawyer for the police union in Connecticut and worked with the first responders at the Sandy Hook shooting, a tragic event that killed six adults and 20 children. “But who could reasonably deal with seeing 50 dead bodies (in Orlando) or 20 dead children?”

Brown estimated that in the wake of Sandy Hook, at least 30 police officers struggled with emotional issues including PTSD. The individuals who responded to the Orlando shooting will also suffer.

The loved ones

People don’t need to personally witness a traumatic event to experience its mental toll. People who lost friends and family members — even if they themselves were hundreds of miles away — will undoubtedly have lasting effects from this tragedy. In fact, learning that traumatic events have occurred to a close family member or friend can be enough to kindle symptoms of PTSD, even if the loved one survived.

Complicated grief, or grief so immense that it becomes a mental illness, is another risk for this group. These people need just as much support as the people who were there that night.

Members of the LGBTQ community

“If you can’t wrap your head around a bar or club as a sanctuary, you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public,” read a much-shared tweet by Jeramey Kraatz.

For individuals of the LGBTQ community, gay bars and nightclubs are safe spaces where they can express themselves without fear of discrimination. Even though LGBTQ rights are becoming more supported in this country, gay and transgender people still face pockets of discrimination each day.

The shooting also took place during a Latinx (a combination of Latino and Latina) night, meaning that the vast majority of victims were Latin American. Black and Latinx people in the LGBTQ community are nearly two times more likely to experience violence than whites.

Members of the Muslim community

People in the Muslim community are also reeling after Sunday’s events. Shawna Ayoub Ainslie, a Muslim American, wrote about her life after 9/11 in the Huffington Post. She described how the Islamophobia that emerged after the attacks made her fear for her life and hide her identity.

“I stopped answering the door,” she wrote. “If I wasn’t expecting someone (and even when I was), my husband or I would tiptoe to the peephole to see if I could identify whoever stood outside as a trusted and safe individual who was not going to exercise vigilante justice on us or deliver us to Gitmo.”

Her anxieties were not unfounded.

“On-campus violence against Muslims happened on my campus to people I knew,” Ainslie wrote. “I didn’t want it to happen to me.”

Since the shooter was Muslim and pledged allegiance to ISIS, Muslim Americans are bracing for yet another storm.

Others in need

These communities are only a small fraction of the people who have been affected by the shooting last weekend. Survivors of previous shootings — especially people who have PTSD — will likely experience worsening symptoms. Individuals who have never been in a shooting but have mental health issues might also feel their symptoms growing more intense. Even people who are completely healthy might feel a little shakier on their feet than usual.

Look out for the people who are close to you. Watch your own mental health to make sure you’re doing all right. These next days — or weeks, or months — may be difficult for a lot of people. We need to do what we can to help each other.

The Sovereign Health Group is a leading behavioral health care provider that treats people with mental health disorders like PTSD, as well as individuals with substance addiction and co-occurring conditions. We recognize also that June is PTSD Awareness Month, and are proud to offer aide those who are in need of help dealing with traumatic events through our kind, compassionate treatment and evidence-based therapies. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at