Saturday, May 25, 2024

Just another mass shooting? Not for the victims and survivors.

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Once again we find ourselves reeling in the aftermath of horrifying acts of gun violence. First, a tight-knit community was celebrating Lunar New Year in a lively ballroom when a gunman opened fire into the crowd, killing 11 and injuring 9 more. The next day, seven more were killed in the coastal town of Half Moon Bay. This time the victims were farm workers, and the gunman was a  disgruntled co-worker. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have already been 40 mass shootings in the first three weeks of 2023.  

Mass shootings take a devastating toll on those directly involved. Family members of those lost in these incidents will endure the pain and grief associated with the sudden and violent loss of their loved ones not just in the immediate aftermath, but for the rest of their lives. Children who witnessed, or were affected by these horrific crimes will never be the same, as their view of themselves, others and the future may be permanently colored by these events. Gun violence shatters victims’ sense of safety and justice and changes their lives drastically as they manage the loss of a loved one.   

For the injured survivors, in addition to the physical pain and recovery from high caliber gun shot wounds, the recovery will be long and challenging. The psychological impact of being injured in or even witnessing an event like this is also devastating. For survivors whose lives were in danger at a mass shooting and those who were injured but survived, there can be long term mental health problems like depression, anxiety, substance abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Research suggests that 28% of people who witness a mass shooting develop PTSD and approximately 33% develop acute stress disorder. Long after the news cycle has moved on and we all go back to our normal lives, these survivors will be left managing the effects of the worst day of their lives. 

These incidents also affect the rest of us. They become part of our collective traumas, a memory we all experienced that changes our thinking and behavior moving forward. These events create an existential threat for all of us and affect our sense of safety and agency. The toxic stress that is created from mass shootings, loss of life, news coverage of the events, and repeat events can create panic and distress for people not directly affected by the events. According to the American Psychological Associations (APA) annual Stress in America survey (2022), 73% of adults in the survey said mass shootings were a significant source of stress in their lives. According to the 2019 Stress in America study, one-third of adults say they now avoid certain places and events because of mass shootings. Stress affects the brain, the immune system, gene expression, physical illness, mental illness and can be long lasting. This type of enduring, reactivated stress can even be intergenerational. 

We cannot ignore the impact this is having on all of us. 

 So, what can we do in the aftermath of these horrific acts of violence? Two things stand out: prevention and recovery. No one should have access to high power weapons that can cause deadly consequences to large numbers of people in short amounts of time. We cannot address this with more police or more metal detectors. The potential for damage is too high and happens too quickly, even when law enforcement is present.

We can start by keeping weapons out of the hands of those who pose a threat. In California, Red Flag Laws allow police, close family members, housemates, employers, co-workers and school officials to seek a gun violence restraining order for someone they believe poses a danger to themselves or others. Prosecutor offices need sufficient resources to ensure anyone not allowed to legally obtain a gun is not able to access a weapon, and to make sure family members, co-workers, and community members know where to report concerns about someone who has access to a gun.

 In the immediate term, the most important thing we can do today is ensure that when these tragic incidents  do happen, we have the resources, time, and trained professionals to respond and support victims and survivors in their healing and recovery. Those affected by these events will need help in the short and long term and we need consistent, effective, accessible, and enduring services that can be there as these people navigate the ups and downs of trauma recovery.

Those who witnessed these events, were affected by the shootings, and live in the communities where they happened will all need support. Every person’s experience with trauma is different and every healing path will be different. We should have services, resources, and trained professionals available to crime survivors, witnesses and communities affected by the violence twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as it is needed. Those working with them should have comprehensive training in trauma, crisis response and trauma recovery. And every county in California should have a plan for responding to these events that includes first responders, victim advocates, community based programs, health and mental health providers and law enforcement.  

Healing not only helps victims and witnesses of mass shootings, but everyone affected by the violence, including the next generation. We must prioritize and modernize our response to these tragedies while we are still reeling today, or we will fail scores of victims when another mass shooting happens tomorrow.

Gena Castro-Rodriguez has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA # 49717). She serves as the Director of Survivor Policy, Training and Resources for the Prosecutors Alliance of California.

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