Sadly, mass shootings are becoming more widespread and occurring with ever greater frequency, often leaving in their wake thousands of lives forever changed. As victims struggle to make sense of the horror they have witnessed, mental health providers struggle to know how best to help them. The question we all seem to ask is, “Why did this happen?” The etiology of mass shootings remains unclear.
In the wake of a mass shooting, immersing ourselves in a supportive community can help.
James Hawdon and John Ryan, professors of sociology at Virginia Tech, and Finnish researchers Atte Oksanen and Pekka Räsänen, studied four communities’ responses to tragedies at a shopping mall in Omaha, Nebraska and at schools in Jokela and Kauhajoki, Finland and Blacksburg, Virgina.
In all four communities people expressed their need for belonging after the shootings, and this solidarity appeared to have remarkable benefits for their well-being. After each incident, the communities held mass gatherings, vigils and spontaneously erected monuments to the victims, demonstrating that though they were in shock, they were united (Hawdon et al., 2016).
The teams’ research showed that participating in the activities of local businesses, religious establishments, volunteer organizations, and social clubs shortly after a tragedy promoted solidarity while seeing a crisis counselor did not.
Another much larger study found similar results.
Martin Obschonka, Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane (Australia), in collaboration with the economist Michael Stützer from the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) in Mannheim (Germany) and researchers from the University of Texas in Austin (USA) and the University of Cambridge (UK) compared self-assessed neurotic personality traits within a global personality sample including 7 million respondents worldwide via a large scale online study. They filtered out around 33,500 people living in 89 German cities and tested the historical link between the local intensity of the WWII strategic bombing and today’s regional level of neurotic traits and related clinical problems such as depression disorders in each of these cities.
Surprisingly, the researchers’ findings countered their assumptions. Fewer neurotic traits were found in populations of cities subjected to substantial wartime bombing, compared to the populations of cities that suffered less destruction and trauma caused by bombing raids. Moreover, more severe bombing did not impede entrepreneurship in the region, but instead acted as a protective factor against future stress.
Regions that experienced major destruction during WWII raids and currently facing major stressors, such as economic instability, are protected against higher levels of neurotic traits and higher rates of clinical depression disorders. They seem to have a striking historical resilience today (Obschonka et al., 2017).
“It is possible that the experience of severe bombing in WWII has made the people and the local culture there more resilient in the long-term, which is for example relevant when coping with major stressors and challenges today such as economic hardship” (Stützer, 2017).
While there are many potential mechanisms behind this result, Obschonka suggests, “One possibility is that the major destruction of cities could have made the local population “tougher,” serving as an impetus for the remaining residents to pull together” (Obschonka, 2017). Obschonka notes that research indicates that external threats strengthen social support, thereby boosting their psychological adjustment. He points to the psychological resilience shown through Germany’s reconstruction of the destroyed houses and infrastructure of bombed cities in the years following the war. New Yorkers demonstrated this same resilience after 9/11 (Obschonka, 2017).
“Our results can also be explained by means of research on the neurobiology of resilience, which emphasizes resilience effects of adversity” (Obschonka, 2017).
As we attempt to reconcile our changed realities after a mass shooting, we come to see the events in our lives from multiple perspectives; develop dialectical thinking; incorporate new perspectives on life; adopt new approaches, and experience community solidarity. All of these help us realize that psychological growth is possible, even in the wake of a mass shooting.
Course excerpt from:
Counseling Victims of Mass Shootings is a 3-hour online continuing education (CE) course that gives clinicians the tools they need to help their clients process, heal, and grow following the trauma of a mass shooting.
This course will begin with a discussion about why clinicians need to know about mass shootings and how this information can help them in their work with clients. We will then look at the etiology of mass shootings, exploring topics such as effects of media exposure, our attitudes and biases regarding mass shooters, and recognizing the signs that we often fail to see. We will answer the question of whether mental illness drives mass shootings. We will examine common first responses to mass shootings, including shock, disbelief, and moral injury, while also taking a look at the effects of media exposure of the victims of mass shootings.
Then, we will turn our attention to the more prolonged psychological effects of mass shootings, such as a critical questioning and reconsideration of lives, values, beliefs, and priorities, and the search for meaning in the upheaval left in the wake of horrific events. This course will introduce a topic called posttraumatic growth, and explore the ways in which events such as mass shootings, while causing tremendous amounts of psychological distress, can also lead to psychological growth. This discussion will include topics such a dialectical thinking, the shifting of fundamental life perspectives, the opening of new possibilities, and the importance of community. Lastly, we will look at the exercises that you, the clinician, can use in the field or office with clients to promote coping skills in dealing with such horrific events, and to inspire psychological growth, adaptation, and resilience in the wake of trauma. Course #31-09 | 2018 | 47 pages | 20 posttest questions
Our online courses provide instant access to the course materials (PDF download) and CE test. Successful completion of the online CE test (80% required to pass, 3 chances to take) and course evaluation are required to earn a certificate of completion. Click here to learn more. Have a question? Contact us. We’re here to help!
Professional Development Resources is a nonprofit educational corporation 501(c)(3) organized in 1992. We are approved to sponsor continuing education by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA); the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR); the Alabama State Board of Occupational Therapy; the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy, Psychology & School Psychology, Dietetics & Nutrition, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and Occupational Therapy Practice; the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board and Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology; the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs; the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists and State Board of Social Worker Examiners; and are CE Broker compliant (all courses are reported within a few days of completion).
Target Audience: Psychologists, Counselors, Social Workers, Marriage & Family Therapist (MFTs), Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs), Occupational Therapists (OTs), Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs), School Psychologists, and Teachers
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