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

October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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