After the Shootings: Community Violence, Collective Trauma and Addiction

It’s Fourth of July in a small town in America, and people of all ages and races, classes and creeds are gathered in a park for the fireworks display. People in lawn chairs are chatting over drinks. Here and there people are stretched out on old blankets or beach towels, reading or scrolling through Facebook. Kids are tearing up and down the playground equipment, playing with glowsticks or laughing at gravity on the swings. Everywhere the people breath deep and smell wafting barbecue above fresh grass, spiced with smoke from exhausted sparklers.

The community seems happy with the warmth of summer, and nothing around could show you the difference between this town and so many other small towns in America. But the people of this town have been changed. One April ten years ago, someone walked onto the local college campus, entered a building and locked the doors, killed 32 people and wounded 17 before committing suicide.

About 500 people are gathered to see the fireworks. Because of that violent event, research suggests that 75 of those gathered are suffering symptoms of trauma severe enough to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Statue on Virginia Tech Campus

Photo: “The Garden Sprite” statue on Virginia Tech Campus in the Hahn Horticulture Garden, a rendition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Maid in the Mud”

Mass shootings are one type of community violence, a term that includes terrorist attacks, riots, gang wars, workplace assaults, torture, bombings, war, and many other acts of violence. Community violence has far-reaching effects very different from some other forms of trauma, and impacts people who may not have been directly present at the violent event.

“Several aspects of community violence make it different from other types of trauma. Although there are warnings for some traumas, community violence usually happens without warning and comes as a sudden and terrifying shock. Because of this, communities that suffer from violence often experience increased fear and a feeling that the world is unsafe and that harm could come at any time. Although some traumas only affect one individual or a small group of people, community violence can permanently destroy entire neighborhoods. Finally, although some types of trauma are accidental, community violence is intentional, which can lead survivors to feel an extreme sense of betrayal and distrust toward other people.”
– Hamblen and Goguen, US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016

An estimated 1015% of people who experience community violence report severe PTSD symptoms afterward. (Researchers estimate that 15-30% of people in the Blacksburg community experienced PTSD symptoms after the Virginia Tech shootings.)

Risk factors include female gender, proximity to the violence, knowing victims of the violence, pre-existing psychological conditions, emotion regulation difficulties, anxiety sensitivity, and low social support (Lowe and Galea, 2017; Bardeen et al., 2013; Grills-Taquechel et al., 2011; Stephenson et al., 2009; Scarpa et al., 2006Norris et al., 2002; North et al., 1994). The mental health effects include “psychological distress and clinically significant elevations in posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms in relation to the degree of physical exposure and social proximity to the shooting incident” (Schultz et al., 2014).

Researchers report that people in the surrounding community may also experience these effects, even if they did not witness the violence first-hand. For example, people who experience stronger emotional reactions, regardless of proximity, are at higher risk for later PTSD symptoms.

“For some people it’s water off a duck’s back. Some people are drowning.”
– Anne Giles, private interview

People who were unable to contact or locate loved ones during the Virginia Tech shootings were subject to trauma symptoms, even years later, as Victoria Sagstetter discovered.

“As an English teacher, she found herself re-reading student poems that seemed unusually dark, looking for the kind of clues Cho left behind in his writings before his killing spree.”
Jacob Demmitt of The Roanoke Times

After the Virginia Tech shootings, 4.5 years went by before some people sought treatment for trauma. Among the mental health effects people experience after trauma are substance use disorders (SUDs) and other addictions. The connection between trauma and addiction is well-documented, and current research indicates that trauma is a causal factor leading to addiction.

“Consistent with the self-medication hypothesis, the theory that people use substances to cope with psychological distress, PTSD tends to precede and predict SUD.”
Trauma and Addiction: Common Origins and Integrated Treatment

About 34% of people diagnosed with PTSD also suffer from addiction, and about two-thirds of people with addiction have experienced past trauma. Therefore, of the revelers at the Fourth of July celebration, an estimated 25 are at risk for developing addiction due to the event of community violence alone.

If people have experienced other traumatic events in their lives, as 1 in 4 American children have (CDC 2014; Felitti et al., 1998), they will be at even higher risk for addiction. For example, women who had experienced sexual trauma prior to the Virginia Tech shootings reported significantly more depressive symptoms, shooting-related PTSD, and lower belief in benevolence and family support.

“Maia Szalavitz, in her book Unbroken Brain, reports that, ‘Even just one extreme adversity – like losing a parent or witnessing domestic violence – before age 15 doubles the odds of substance use disorders, according to a study of the entire Swedish population’ (Unbroken Brain, 65).”
– Trauma and Addiction: Common Origins and Integrated Treatment

The estimated 75 people with trauma and 25 people with addiction watching the fireworks display are therefore a low estimate of the true risk for trauma and addiction in this small American town. Trauma and addiction are already very likely to occur, and an event of community violence such as the mass shootings in this community means trauma and addiction are almost certain to happen.

After community violence happens, everyone should be screened for trauma. (If resources are limited, those exhibiting risk factors should be prioritized, as should those with pre-existing disorders that put them at higher risk for addiction.) Community members must be aware that their friends and family and neighbors are at risk for developing addiction, and that if they do, they need treatment not tough love.

Some variables are known to reduce the risk of PTSD (and therefore addiction) after community violence. If a person has a belief in his or her ability to handle the trauma, i.e., self-efficacy, he or she will be less likely to experience PTSD symptoms. After community violence, in-person social support is known to mitigate resource loss (social or physical) and compensate for low levels of self-efficacy, reducing PTSD risk (Warner et al., 2015; Hawdon et al., 2012; Littleton et al., 2009). Specifically, sharing about thoughts and emotions with others may attenuate PTSD risk, but sharing bare facts will likely not help, and may increase the risk of developing PTSD.

“Thus, it is argued here that efforts to reduce risk and resource inequities, engage local people in mitigation, create organizational linkages, boost and protect social supports, cultivate trusted and responsible information resources, and enhance decision-making skills will augment more specific intervention efforts to promote safety, calming, efficacy, hope, and connectedness in the aftermath of mass trauma.”
Norris and Stevens, 2007

People in a community have a choice to make after community violence. What they choose determines how long and how badly the violence continues to affect their community. People who come together, in person, to share thoughts and feelings about the violence during and after it occurs are less likely to suffer from PTSD and addiction in the future. People who continue to come together, who recognize that some of their friends and neighbors will inevitably be suffering, and who affirm their own and others’ abilities to cope with the violence will be more likely to heal.

Let’s say you’re sitting on a towel on the 4th of July in that small town, surrounded by your friends and neighbors as the fireworks begin. You share, together, openly and shamelessly, about the trauma or addiction with which you may struggle.  In a special place created by “safety, calming, efficacy, hope, and connectedness,” you may start to feel a little bit better.

Author’s note: To estimate the number of people in my imagined 500 likely to develop PTSD, I reviewed the literature. One source estimated 10-15%, another estimated 15.4%, and a third estimated 15-30% of people who experience a mass shooting (directly or indirectly) develop PTSD. I chose 15% as a conservative estimate, because I do not have access to the data sets for each of these three sources. I multiplied 500 by 0.15, and arrived at my estimate of 75 people at high risk for PTSD in my imagined gathering of 500.

To estimate the number of people in my imagined 500 likely to develop addiction, I again reviewed the literature and found that 34% of people diagnosed with PTSD also have addiction. I multiplied 75 by 0.34 to arrive at 25 estimated people with addiction in the gathering of 500. One may also multiply 0.15 by 0.34 to obtain 0.05, or 5%, and multiply the full 500 by 0.05, again equaling 25 people at risk for addiction.

In a gathering of 500 people who experienced community violence, 15% are at risk for PTSD, or 75, and 5% are at risk for addiction, or 25 – due to the event of community violence alone.

PDF of Research Excerpts

Photo: Laurel Sindewald, statue, Hahn Horticulture Garden, Virginia Tech

A personal note from Anne Giles, added 4/5/17: I am one among a likely cohort of 300 who developed addiction in Blacksburg, Virginia after the Virginia Tech shootings. Of the 40,000+ people living in Blacksburg in 2007, research predicts 15% of them would develop PTSD. That would be 6,000. Of that 6,000, research predicts 5% would develop addiction. That’s 300.

Handshake Media maintains a list of addiction recovery resources for people living in the Blacksburg, Virginia area.

This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

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