In the spring of 2013 there were 12 mass shootings and one terrorist bombing on American soil. Most often the discussion afterward focuses on what was wrong in the life of the perpetrator. While mental health professionals are concerned with what inspires these kinds of acts, they’re also concerned with how they affect people already dealing with an injured emotional state.
A study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress has found that for people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), just hearing about a traumatic event or watching it on television can be enough to cause a spike in symptoms.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder which causes a person to experience drastic changes in the way they think, emote, behave and function psychologically. A person with PTSD has been exposed in some way to a threatening situation which traumatized them and made it difficult for them to resume a normal life. The disorder may cause disturbing nightmares, a need to keep watch, flashbacks, anger or emotional numbness. The person with PTSD will often go to great lengths in order to avoid anything reminding them of the trauma they went through.
There are a number of therapies being used to help people with PTSD including medicinal, cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy. Still, there is currently no way to predict who will develop PTSD nor how intense their symptoms may be.
Past studies have suggested eight percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point during their lives. But the figure is considerably higher for war veterans, with nearly one in five struggling with some degree of PTSD. A person may develop PTSD after living through any sort of traumatic experience – natural disaster, violent crime and vehicle crashes are just a few.
The terrorist bombs which exploded in Boston on April 15, 2013, were clearly traumatizing to the persons there that day, but researchers wondered how the event affected combat vets in the area living with PTSD. There was already data being collected on the vets so researchers wondered how exposure to this new trauma might affect the soldiers.
Researchers were able to conduct phone interviews with 71 veterans in the first week following the bombing. By comparing the newly collected data with information gathered just eight weeks prior, the researchers were able to get a fairly accurate picture of how being exposed to trauma indirectly impacted their symptoms. On the whole they found there wasn’t a great difference in pre- and post-bombing symptoms among the vets, but 38 percent of them did report emotional distress.
Those reporting the highest distress showed marked symptom changes, especially more trouble with intrusive thoughts and more symptoms of avoidance. Though the majority of vets did not demonstrate renewed problems, many of them did say that the bombing triggered flashbacks of their own trauma.
The study was a joint effort on the part of the Boston University School of Medicine and the National Center for PTSD. The findings indicate that healthcare providers in an area where a violent public event has occurred should be alert to the fact that the incident may trigger relapses or more intense symptoms for people already dealing with PTSD, and combat veterans with pre-existing PTSD face an even higher risk.