Once again, school shootings are in the headlines. And in recent years, those headlines have become all too familiar to students.
"It's affected the generation dramatically," Marjorie Lindholm, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., tells WebMD. "If you notice the pattern of the school shootings, they were high schools and now it's moving into colleges, which kind of means it's following the age group."
Lindholm was in a classroom where a wounded teacher died before a SWAT team got the students out.
After Columbine, "I dropped out of high school, and it took a lot of years to get courage to go to college, and I still can't do it," she says. "I was trying to do a biology major, but you have to go to the classroom, and last semester I quit going again because there's been so many shootings." She is now pursuing a sociology degree online "so that I don't have to walk into a classroom anymore for the remainder of my bachelor's."
Years later, school shootings bring back painful memories. "Every time something like that happens, you kind of relive what you lived through," says Lindholm. "On those days, you do need to find comfort in something. My thing is ice cream ... cookies and cream," she says.
But it's not just about food. Lindholm reaches out to school shooting survivors through her MySpace page. "Anyone can contact me, and other Columbine victims are also available to talk. There's a network of people that are ready to help if they reach out and look for them," says Lindholm.
Students who were in elementary, middle, or high school when Columbine happened are now teens or young adults.
"These young people have been exposed to more violence than perhaps any other previous generation just because of [its prevalence] in television, movies, and actual coverage of violent incidents," Scott Poland, EdD, tells WebMD.
Poland is the crisis coordinator at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He's been involved in crisis work at 11 school shootings, including Columbine.
"Columbine sent shock waves through every school in America," says Poland. "My daughter, Jill, was an eighth-grader in Houston at that time. She didn't want to get out of the car the next morning because she was afraid."
Researchers haven't yet studied the impact that the string of school shootings has had on the teens and young adults who have grown up with such crimes.
"I think if there's a cumulative effect, it's because we don't talk about things the way we should," says Poland.
"You can run a theory that says they'd be more fearful because they've had more of these incidents in their lives and so it seems that life is more unpredictable, and if you add 9/11 to that, it's even been a stronger part of their lives," Patrick Tolan, PhD, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells WebMD.
"On the other hand," says Tolan, "these kinds of things have been in their lives in a such a way that it may not be as shocking as much as it is for people who grow up not hearing about these things."
Affected From Afar
School shootings are rare, and when they happen, they obviously deal the harshest blow to those on the scene and their loved ones. But they're not the only ones who are affected.
"There's something called vicarious traumatization," says Russell T. Jones, PhD, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech University. "The phenomenon seems to suggest that being repeatedly exposed to other traumatic events can have a negative impact on a particular individual."
"There are at least some preliminary data that say that even though you weren't there, by witnessing it on television or knowing someone that was involved, you can in fact become traumatized at varying levels," says Jones, who has a secondary appointment at Yale University.
After a School Shooting
Jones has three pieces of advice for people dealing with vicarious traumatization after a school shooting:
- Don't watch too much of the TV coverage. "As they're playing it over and over and over again, [don't] expose yourself to it," says Jones. Poland agrees. "When I was at school a very long time ago I would have to read a newspaper ... it wouldn't be front and center on television," he says. "Frankly, I generally avoid the coverage. ... I'm not going to be turning it on because it's very upsetting."
- If you're having trouble, get help. "Reach out to friends and family members, talk about your feelings and your thoughts. This kind of thing can be very helpful," says Jones.
- Don't let stigma stop you from getting help. Jones says he hopes stigma about mental health will decrease. "There's a lot of science behind helping people following traumatic events, and it's our hope they will reach out for that help and lead fruitful and productive lives," says Jones.
Experts recommend that parents talk to children about violence and safety, but that conversation is "very different" when the child is a college-aged young adult, says Tolan.
"The older the child, the more you want to talk about what's the meaning of this [event], what would they do, and how they want to think about this being a part of the society they live in," says Tolan.
Columbine Survivor's Advice
Lindholm has some recommendations for people who have just been through a school shooting:
"The best advice I can give them is not to isolate themselves. And that is exactly the thing you want to do. You don't want to talk about it to your parents. You don't want to talk about it to your family. And you really don't want to talk about it to your friends because you kind of feel like they have no clue what you're going through."
She also encourages school shooting survivors to show each other compassion. "I know there [are] cliques and there always will be, but if they could just be accepting for right now and make sure nobody's alone, even the weird kid that sits in the corner. You know, you have to watch out for everyone right now."
Lindholm says the best thing that friends and family can do "is not push them to talk about anything. Just be there for them when they're ready, if they ever are. And also not to take it personally if there are spats of anger or if the person changed. Because this is a life-changing thing."
Finally, Lindholm offers this perspective.
"I think one thing to keep in mind is this is not going to define who they are. Even though right now it feels like this is their whole world and it just came crashing down and their lives are shattered, they are going to go to lunch again one day and laugh with their friends and not think about this. And they're going to get through it, even though it's going to take some time. And they can't be mad at themselves if it takes six months, a year, five years, 10 years, because everyone has their own pace in healing. But eventually, it will happen and if they keep that in mind, I think there's light at the end of the tunnel."