Psychologists and other mental health professionals are helping Virginia Tech students, faculty, family and friends in Blacksburg, VA deal with the traumatic aftermath of the deadly tragedy of April 16, 2007. These professionals are utilizing new techniques called “Psychological First Aid” that helps better identify at-risk individuals in the community who need support for disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder.
People who are at greater risk for trauma include those who were present during the event. Other people at greater risk include those who witnessed the deaths of others, or felt like their own life was endangered. Individuals who suffered a prior trauma or those with a history of mental health issues, such as depression or bipolar disorder, are also at greater risk.
First-responders who were in a position of responsibility, such as police or emergency medical technicians, can also be at greater risk for trauma, as can anyone who felt responsibility for not recognizing or preventing the event before it occurred. People with greater support systems – such as friends, family, or colleagues they can talk to – are at less risk than those who have few friends or no one to talk to about the event.
Dangerous situations trigger a stress response that includes releasing adrenaline and cortisol to speed the heart and increase oxygen absorption while slowing nonessential tasks like tissue repair and digestion. People at high risk get stuck in what psychologists call a “fight or flight” state, and so are strained by the ongoing hyper-vigilance.
Once a person becomes stuck in this anxiety state, the person feels terror all the time, making victims constantly aware of their environment, their emotions constantly on edge. They find it difficult to function in their everyday lives, and can’t cope with normal, everyday stresses.
Better understanding how people handle stress, trauma professionals have instituted a number of changes in how they respond to tragic events, like a school shooting.
For example, professionals no longer encourage everyone in the community to attend a “debriefing” where the event is discussed and examined in detail. Instead, trauma counselors affiliated with groups like FEMA, the National Institute for Mental Health and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies follow a protocol called Psychological First Aid.
This treatment effort focuses less on pushing everyone in the community to talk at length about the trauma (which increases their exposure to the trauma) and instead focuses on identifying at-risk people, and lending support for whatever recovery systems they already have in place.
“All the things grandma used to say-go back to work, get with your family, all those things turned out to be more effective than pushing mental health services,” says Lawrence H. Bergmann, a certified trauma specialist and founder of Post Trauma Resources in South Carolina. “All this counseling and rushing to the scene turned out not to be so helpful. Turns out not everyone needs to discuss the situation and everyone has their own way to process, find support from family or friends.”
The fact that the shootings took place at a college rather than a school may also help to reduce the extent of long-term psychological damage. Psychologists expect college-age students to respond more like adults than adolescents to this traumatic event. Students are already aware that their campus is a less sheltered environment than a high school and may experience less of a sense of violation than younger witnesses of school shootings.
Experts say the most important response to tragedies like the Virginia Tech shooting is helping people who are at risk get the help they need. That means helping people find a therapist or someone they can talk to, to offer support and allow them a time and place to share their grief, fears, and anxieties.