Many people tend to assume only people who were directly exposed to a trauma will experience issues related to the trauma and may develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, this is not the truth. Many people may not have lived through the trauma, but they may know someone who did or they were exposed to very explicit images of the trauma or have been hearing about the trauma a lot on the news. It may also trigger memories of a trauma they experienced in their lives or in their family. This can cause what is referred to as vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is when someone is traumatized by an event but they did not experience the event themselves. Simply knowing about or hearing about the event is traumatizing to them. This is happening to many children and families in the United States. However, when are we going to pay attention to the way children in the United States are being traumatized over and over?
If this sounds confusing, let’s look at what children and teenagers have been dealing with and living through the last few years. This last year teenagers and children have been living with the trauma of the Coronavirus. Their schools were closed without warning and so were the sports and other after school activities stopped suddenly. In addition they were not able to hang out with friends and had to go to school remotely.
In addition to these changes, many children and teenagers had family members they could no longer see, such as grandparents and many had family members who died due to the Coronavirus. However, they were not able to attend funeral services and say goodbye. Over 525,000 Americans died to the Coronavirus. All of those people had family members and friends who are grieving for them still. A fact we tend to overlook. However, children and teenagers are dealing with it daily especially if they lost a parent, grandparents or a sibling.
While children and teenagers are still dealing with how poorly the Pandemic was handled by the government, now many are being told we are reopening states including schools. Therefore, they no longer have to deal with remote school now they will be back in their classrooms. This brings up anxiety about how school will be because they still need to be cautious so they don’t contract the Coronavirus. Many children and teenagers have told me they are very worried about being exposed to the Coronavirus or their parents being exposed to the Coronavirus.
In addition to the Coronavirus, children and teenagers now have to worry again about mass shootings. We just started opening the Country and already there have been two mass shootings. This brings up the anxiety and vicarious trauma children have been exposed to regarding school shootings for years. They have been increasing every year since 2010 (CDC) and in 2019 by November there had been 336 mass shootings averaging out to a mass shooting every 1.2 days (Gun Violence Archive). These are overwhelming statistics for adults and we are expecting children and teenagers to cope with them. The students know there have been no changes to the gun laws. Therefore, they are having to return to school and worry about mass school shootings.
Look at what they are returning to when they return to school. Today in most United States schools, the classroom doors are kept lock while class is in session and no one can enter a school campus without checking in with the main office and they must wear an identification badge while on campus. In fact, all school employees must wear official school identification badges while at work. Many elementary students noticed these changes and have asked why the door must be locked? Students are told it is for their safety. The school is preventing any people who do not belong at the school from getting near the students. No one mentions someone with a gun, but children have heard about and remember all the mass shootings and they know why the door needs to be locked. I have many elementary students mention this to me during their therapy sessions.
Now when we were in school we had fire alarm drills in case there ever was a fire in the school. No one thought much about them. Some students felt the fire alarm was too loud but no one really worried about a fire happening at school. We never worried about it because we never heard about any school fires and people dying.
Today students face more than fire alarm drills. Schools routinely have active shooter drills. During these drills students are taught to shelter in place and to remain very quiet so the shooter will not enter their room. Therefore, besides having heard about and remembering mass school shootings, school students know they are returning to a place where they could be killed. They know they are practicing what to do in case there is a shooter at their school trying to kill them. Therefore, they worry about could a shooting happen at their school and could they die. As a result of these fears, the CDC has documented that anxiety disorders and depression had significantly increasing in children since school shootings increased and they have documented a further increase in anxiety and depression due to the Coronavirus.
To add to the trauma students now face, if there is an incident, such as a bank robbery, involving someone with a gun near a school, the police put the school on lock down. The students must shelter in place and they don’t know if the person with the gun will come to their school or not. This creates a significant amount of anxiety for children and many are traumatized by the incident. Here is another incident causing trauma for children and teenagers. How many do we expect them to cope with at their ages? When will we provide mental health care for the children, teenagers, their parents, the school staff and the first responders? All of these people are being exposed to trauma regarding the Coronavirus and mass shootings on a regular basis. This creates traumatic reactions and exacerbates old traumatic reactions.
Another issue which adds to this trauma is gun control. Since the shooting in Florida many students have been actively campaigning for sane gun control. However, nothing has been done to enact sane gun control laws. High school students know nothing is being done and elementary children are hearing nothing is being done about guns. This makes them worry because they know guns are still out there that can be used to kill them. The shooting which occurred in New Zealand cause high school and elementary students to wonder why our Country does nothing about gun control. Our government has done nothing even though students and parents are demanding safe gun laws. While our government debates the issue, more students were killed and may be killed. Just look at the two mass shooting this past week. However, New Zealand in a matter of 3 weeks after a shooting banned all assault weapons. This makes students wonder why we have not done anything when we have a bigger problem with mass shootings. Also it doesn’t make them feel safe at school because they do not feel like a priority. Some people will say children and teenagers are not aware of such issues. However, remember with their Smartphones they have instant access to the news and this generation of teenagers are politically active.
Working with teenagers and children I have seen that anxiety and trauma reactions have
increased significantly for children. Also children are afraid of returning to school because they might be killed. These are responses to the mass shootings. Every time there is a mass shooting children become more anxious and afraid. We had two mass shootings this last week and as I am writing this article another mass shooting is occurring in the Florida Keys. We have just started to open the Country and we already have had 3 mass shootings. This will exacerbate previous traumatic reactions and create new ones. We are expecting children and teenagers to cope with the Coronavirus and mass shootings at the same time. For those children and teenagers not directly effected by the virus or shootings, they still have to cope with the issues which results in vicarious trauma.
Furthermore, if we want to reduce the vicarious trauma children and teenagers experience, we must be honest and not lie to children and teenagers. Remember, they have their smartphones phones and easy access to news and videos clips of the news. The best example is when the US Capital building was attacked by people trying to prevent President Biden from winning the Presidential Election. There have been Republican Congressmen and Senators saying they were safe and down playing the event. However, police were killed and injured and people were chanting “hang Pence”. To me that doesn’t sound safe. Additionally, despite the video showing these protesters breaking windows, spraying police with pepper spay and beating officers with flag poles, the former President Trump went on television saying the protesters were hugging the police, waving hello and walking calmly into the Capital. This type of blatant lie causes teenagers not to trust authority figures because they may be lying and it can cause them to second guess what they saw in the video. This creates a situation where teenagers do not know who to trust and this exacerbates their fear and traumatic reactions because they feel they have no one to trust. Children and teenagers need the truth in age appropriate terms. The truth is easier to handle than their emotions.
Summing up, children and teenagers in the United States have been traumatized and vicariously traumatized by mass shootings and the Coronavirus. As we start to open up the Country, they continue to have to deal with the Coronavirus and mass shootings. Therefore, they continue to be traumatized and vicariously traumatized. Many will need psychotherapy to help them with these issues. The American Association of Children and Adolescent Psychiatry has put out the following guidelines. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms in your child or teenager it explains how to start to talk to your child or teenager and how to find the appropriate psychotherapist for your child. It is important to get a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders and trauma issues http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Talking-To-Children-About-Terrorism-And-War-087.aspx.
One final aspect about vicarious trauma that has emerged regarding mass shootings and the Coronavirus is suicide. Family members and survivors of mass shootings are feeling survivors guilt and as a result committing suicide. There was a report of 3 people who committed suicide who either survived a mass shooting or their child died in one. This has been occurring for a long time. It has been occurring since Columbine. Family members feel they can no longer cope with the pain. Survivors can’t cope with the guilt of surviving. Family and friends of some one who was killed or injured in a mass school shooting have had their lives changed forever! People, family members and first responders, especially hospital workers dealing with the Coronavirus are also committing suicide. They are dealing with depression, anxiety and trauma reactions on a daily basis. However, we do not have adequate mental health resources to help these people. Also people assume after a few months, most people may be grieving but can handle their situation. This is not true. They are experience anxiety and trauma that for many of them is very confusing. This only increases the anxiety and trauma. The children experiencing the shooter drills are also confused by their anxiety and traumatic reactions. They do not know what to do and this causes isolation and the feelings increase.
We must eliminate the stigma associated with mental health issues. We also need to make sure that anyone who is even remotely exposed to a mass shooting (including first responders and emergency room physicians) or anyone who has had to deal with the Coronavirus have access to mental health care. Not just for a month or two but for as long as they need psychotherapy and they should be able to receive the therapy without worrying about the cost.
We have a generation of children growing up with anxiety and traumatic reactions. If we don’t help them now, they will only get worse as time goes on. May be we need to take a lesson from New Zealand and how they responded to a mass shooting. They banned assault weapons after one shooting. We have been having shootings for 20 years and have done nothing, why? We have a great deal of information about the Coronavirus and we are arguing about wearing masks. Why?
Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist with over 20 years experience treating children and teenagers and specializes in treating trauma. For more information about his work or private practice visit his website www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page www.Facebook.com/drrubino3 or his podcasts on Spotify or Apple.