Survivors of Mass Trauma Can Experience PTSD Symptoms

The Oklahoma City bombing, 9-11 and mass school shootings have all tragically claimed victims. Some of those victims died from bodily wounds and others remain with psychological wounds. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may affect between eight percent and 15 percent of people who witness or are directly involved with a horrific accident or massacre, according to Russell T. Jones, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech. Jones counseled survivors of the shooting at Virginia Tech.

Developing PTSD

Individuals are certain to have at least a slight uneasiness after viewing a traumatic event. A few weeks that may include some sleeplessness, fear, and depression are common. But if these and other more severe symptoms including flashbacks, debilitating anxiety, and violent behavior develop and persist for more than a month the individual may be developing PTSD. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV, 1994), an individual may have PTSD if they exhibit the following characteristics:

  • They witnessed or were involved in an event that involved death, deadly injuries, or threatened death, and they had emotional traumatic responses like helplessness, horror, panic, and fear.
  • Re-experience symptoms felt during the event in flashbacks or nightmares
  • Experience emotional numbness and avoid reminders of the trauma
  • Insomnia, anxiety, super-vigilance, severe irritability
  • Symptoms last for more than a month
  • Symptoms cause impairment or suffering that disrupts daily social functioning

Children With PTSD

Children sometimes show PTSD symptoms in their own way. The National Center for PTSD states that many children will exhibit symptoms during play. Some may start including finger-shooting or toy guns in their games or want to take a gun to school. Other children will suffer with avoiding places and things that remind them of the trauma. Some will suffer from flashbacks and nightmares or become violent and agitated. Up to nine months after a shooting in a high school in California, one-fourth of the 247 teens who directly experienced the traumatic event suffered from partial or full PTSD.

Two Stages of Healing

Experts believe that during the immediate stages of recovery, children and adults should be reassured that they are safe and that tomorrow they will be safe. They should return to daily routines to stress that life is still normal out there and that the traumatic scene was an isolated event which is over and will not happen to them again. During the second stage of recovery, individuals should be professionally guided in strategies that will help them cope with day-to-day routines. Through counseling they may find the strength to take steps to overcome their fears and debilitating symptoms. Some find hope and light in a stronger community after a tragedy. As a community comes together, individuals help others heal, provide strength, support, love-both tangible and intangible necessities. With support from a community coupled with support from mental health professionals, those who have witnessed tragedy have a greater chance to heal.

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