Trauma After Gun Violence: The Survivors
Since the tragic December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School through October 2017, about 1,518 mass shootings have occurred in the U.S., resulting in at least 1,715 deaths and 6,089 people wounded. As of early November, 53,036 gun violence incidents in 2017 caused 13,324 deaths and 27,249 injuries. These statistics include victims of the latest tragedies in Las Vegas and the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs,Texas. The Nov. 14 shooting in Rancho Tehama, California, resulted in five deaths, including the shooter’s wife. In addition, at least 10 people were wounded. It is blatantly clear gun violence imparts a horrific loss of life, but what happens to survivors?
More Than Physical Injuries
Trauma and gun violence leave many survivors with significant physical and cognitive injuries. Former U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords was left physically and cognitively impaired by the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting in which she was shot at point-blank range in the head. The shooting in a Tucson, Arizona, grocery store parking lot killed six people and injured 13.
Witnessing a traumatic act can impart serious mental scars. The late Bill Badger, a retired Army colonel who helped tackle the Tucson gunman, was not permanently injured from the bullet that grazed the back of his head. Nevertheless, his wife said he showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Pam Simon was one of the 13 injured, the bullet passing through her wrist, entering her chest, missing her heart and lodging in her hip.
Simon struggled with PTSD for a year and a half, but when interviewed after the Las Vegas shooting, said PTSD is a lifelong issue you can figure out how to manage. Images from mass shootings can re-traumatize victims, bringing back uncomfortable feelings of sadness, anger and flashbacks, years after the incident. Research shows PTSD is especially common among people exposed to mass shootings versus other types of trauma, with rates as high as 90%.
Psychological Fallout of Gun Violence
In Chicago, which has the highest homicide rate in the nation, the majority of gun-related deaths occur in low-income and impoverished communities. A lack of community resources, insurance coverage or a reluctance to seek professional help due to stigma and embarrassment are barriers to treatment. A study conducted at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital found more than four in 10 trauma victims showed symptoms of PTSD, with an even higher rate among those wounded by guns.
PTSD impacts survivors, as well as first responders, doctors, nurses, eyewitnesses, family members and friends, sometimes long after the trauma. Repercussions include anxiety, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, concentration problems and hyper-arousal. Normal sounds mimicking gunshots such as a car backfiring or a balloon popping may trigger panic and intense, disabling fear. These responses are tied to changes in a region deep in the brain called the amygdala, which regulates the fight-or-flight response.
Untreated trauma and PTSD can lead to substance abuse, psychiatric disorders and other destructive behaviors. PTSD treatments such as dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, neurofeedback, present-centered therapies, EMDR, somatic experiencing, mindfulness and others can alleviate some of the painful symptoms related to gun violence and other traumatic events.
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