Many people tend to assume only people who were directly exposed to a trauma will experience issues related to the trauma. However, this is not the truth. Many people may not have lived through the trauma, but they know someone who did or they were exposed to very explicit images of the trauma or have been hearing about the trauma a lot. This can cause vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is when someone is traumatized by an event but they did not experience the event themselves. The knowledge of the event is traumatizing to them. This is happening to many children and families.
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 have 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 hear about 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 hearing about mass school shootings, school students are practicing what to do in case there is a shooter at their school. Therefore, they hear about the shootings on the news, they are practicing what to do at school in case of a shooter, so they worry about could a shooting happen at their school and could they die. As a result of this fear, I am seeing anxiety disorders increase in children significantly and some even have trauma reactions such as nightmares. The CDC has documented that anxiety disorders have been significantly increasing in children since school shooting have been increasing.
In addition to these drills, 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.
Another issue which adds to this trauma is gun control. Since the shooting last year 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 recent shooting in New Zealand is very confusing to high school and elementary students. Our government has done nothing even though students and parents are demanding safe gun laws. While our government debates the issue, more students have been killed. However, New Zealand in a matter of 3 weeks after the 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.
As I have stated anxiety and trauma reactions have been significantly increasing for children who have not experienced a mass shooting, but because of what they know and are seeing they are afraid one may happen at their school. Many parents worry about what signs they need to be looking for in their children and what to do if they notice symptoms they are concerned about. 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 it explains how to start to talk to your child 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 has emerged this week. The issue is suicide by family members and survivors of mass shootings. This week 3 people have 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! 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) 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 act. They banned assault weapons after one shooting. We have been having shootings for 20 years and have done nothing, 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 http://www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page http://www.Facebook.com/drrubino3.