Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


After Aurora, Expect PTSD to Spread Far Beyond Theater

• July 20, 2012 • 11:54 AM

Two studies of Virginia Tech students provide information on the likelihood and treatment of stress-related psychological symptoms following a mass shooting.

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.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.