Mass Shootings Affect Our Collective Mental Health—Here’s How to Begin to Cope from Health.Com
May 31, 2022
By Alyssa Hui
Fact checked on May 31, 2022 by Vivianna Shields, a journalist and fact-checker with experience in health and wellness publishing.
The most recent incidents in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed during a school day; and Buffalo, New York, where 10 people were killed in a grocery store, have left not only the affected communities but the U.S. as a whole reeling, still trying to process the tragedies.
“When something unfathomable and overwhelming happens like an act of mass violence affecting young children, it affects all of us whether we’re closely related or not,” Rebecca Brendel, MD, JD, president of the American Psychiatric Association and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Health.
“For everyone, it is possible for events like this to overwhelm our usual abilities to cope in major ways and in small ways,” Dr. Brendel added.
Some people may resort to anger or frustration; others may feel fearful and helpless; while still others may experience feelings of sadness, sorrow, and worry, Arash Javanbakht, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic at Wayne State University, told Health.
Whatever you’re feeling, mental health experts maintain that any reaction is not only typical, but expected. “This kind of trauma or something that happened out of the course of everyday life that’s just so upsetting; it’s normal to feel a reaction,” said Dr. Brendel.
Here are some expert-backed ways to help you start processing any feelings and emotions you may be struggling with.
Communicate Your Feelings
After a mass shooting event, it’s important to recognize, share, express, and communicate any emotions or feelings you may have with trusted people who are willing to talk and listen, Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator of intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, CA, told Health.
“It’s OK to feel outraged and it’s OK to feel powerless, but the way that you best manage those types of feelings is by exploring them, putting them out there, writing about them, and doing something active,” said Dr. Mendez.
Talking with others can be a way to validate your feelings and experiences, too. It can remind you that whatever you’re feeling or thinking is a typical response to traumatic events, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), while also allowing you to feel more connected to others who may be feeling similarly. Sharing these feelings with others can also provide comfort in knowing that you have support moving forward to get you through the days ahead, said Dr. Brendel.
Stick to a Routine
It’s easy to experience disturbances in your day-to-day life following news of a traumatic event, but according to Dr. Mendez, keeping up with your daily routine can be beneficial to help maintain a sense of normalcy—especially for children and teenagers.
“Routine is really important during times of stress, especially when the stress is something that’s completely unimaginable and unexpected,” said Dr. Mendez. “The way we ground ourselves is by going to our routines, whatever those are, it’s different for everybody.”
Dr. Mendez and Dr. Javanbakht also suggest continuing a practice that helps with emotional relief whether that be prayer, exercise, meditation, reading inspirational material or attending to other forms of self-care.
Limit Your Media Exposure
Staying informed on current events is important—but it’s equally important to know when to step away from the coverage and give yourself and your family a break.
“If you [turn on] the TV, any of the cable news channels for hours and hours are talking about this—the pain and the number of people who got killed,” said Dr. Javanbakht. “Some even show pictures of videos of the chaos, and if you get hours of exposure to this, you will feel much worse.”
In a 2020 commentary published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, researchers explained that media exposure—even just several hours of reading or watching about a mass casualty event like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings—led to higher reported levels of acute stress. The repeated exposure was also associated with ongoing worry about mass violence and traumatic stress symptoms over time.
Another 2019 study found that repeated media exposure to mass trauma can fuel a “cycle of distress”—ultimately putting individuals at risk of both mental and physical health consequences.
“Although a well-informed public is essential during crisis events, it is also important that viewers understand how they may be putting their long-term mental and physical health at risk by closely following along with collective traumas as they unfold in the news media,” study authors wrote. “That way, consumers will be able to make more mindful and informed choices about how to stay informed about collective traumas across the world.”
Consider Professional Help
Though there’s no “right” way to deal with traumatic events, people not directly affected by a mass casualty event should see their intense sadness and worry begin to fade after about two weeks, said Dr. Brendel.
But if those symptoms of trauma persist—like not being able to sleep or enjoy things you once liked, having recurring worries or fears, or feeling fearful to go about your daily activities—it may be time to seek the help of a licensed mental health professional.
“The most important thing when we face mass trauma such as the [recent] mass shootings…is to find a way to talk about the events and reestablish normalcy and routines, but also not overexpose ourselves in a way that itself can become harmful,” said Dr. Brendel.
If you find yourself overwhelmed and needing to talk with a professional to help sort through your feelings and emotions, the following resources are a good place to start:
The 211 network, powered by the United Way, provides information to callers about local resources. Trained professionals are available to talk to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can help people find resources for mental health and substance abuse, as well as COVID-19, food, and housing. For assistance, dial 2-1-1.
American Counseling Association
The American Counseling Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion and advocacy of counseling, while ensuring ethical, culturally-inclusive practices of those who seek professional counseling. The group’s website can help you find a licensed professional counselor in your area, and depending on your specific community.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization that provides advocacy, education, support, and public awareness to ensure better lives for the people and families affected by mental illness. The organization’s toll-free NAMI HelpLine provides free information and support to those in need. For assistance, call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) Monday–Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress, or prevention and crisis services for loved ones of those in need. The Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-8255. Starting on July 16, 2022, you will be able to access the Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that seeks to advance the behavioral health of the nation, and improve the lives of individuals and families living with mental health and substance use disorders. In addition to locating treatment facilities near you, SAMHSA also has a toll-free hotline that can be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Online Therapy Resources
Online resources including (but not limited to) Psychology Today, BetterHelp, and ZocDoc can help you find a licensed practitioner in your area—or through telehealth—to start your therapy journey. Remember: Therapy isn’t only essential during times of trauma; beginning a regular therapy practice with a trusted professional can improve mental health at all times.