What often gets lost in conversations around gun violence is the far-reaching impact such traumatic events may have on survivors. In the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, 21 lives were lost and 17 other people were injured. And though many more survived the attack physically unscathed, that kind of trauma can have lingering mental health effects, including on young children.
According to nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, an estimated 15,000 youths are shot and wounded each year, and hundreds of shootings have occurred on school grounds since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. Moreover, data shows these shootings more often happen at schools with high populations of students of color, disproportionately impacting Black students.
As society grapples with the increasing visibility of trauma in our lives, mental health experts have become more attuned to the needs of children who experience severe trauma. Not all children who experience a traumatic event develop long-term mental health challenges, but some children can develop what mental health professionals call “traumatic stress.” Rosa Vazquez, a bilingual clinical psychologist based in New York City, describes traumatic stress as “stress to the 10th power” that continues over a prolonged period of time, which differentiates trauma from regular daily stresses.
According to Vazquez, in severe trauma cases, children younger than 5 years old can even develop post-traumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD. However, children’s symptoms can manifest differently than adolescents and adults, taking form in a child’s changed daily behavior, playtime expressions, and irritability levels. Trauma symptoms in children can also manifest physically through headaches, stomachaches, vomiting, and other ailments.
But younger children may not have the ability to express their trauma in a way that adults in their life are able to recognize right away.
“One of the issues is that a lot of people don’t pick up [PTSD symptoms in children] correctly. They don’t diagnose it,” said Vazquez. “And if they diagnose it, the child might not get treated properly or they may get dismissed.”
Getting support after a traumatic experience can be a challenge for traumatized youth, even for adolescents who have the capacity to vocalize their needs. Accessing mental health support can be especially challenging for BIPOC youth due to social stigmas around mental health that persist in communities of color and racism and discrimination in the U.S. health care system. A 2015 survey by the American Psychiatric Association found that, among adults with a mental health disorder, 48% of white adults used a mental health service in the year prior, compared to just 31% of Black and Latinx adults and 22% of Asian adults.
Mollie Davis, 22, is a recent graduate of Hollins University. At 17, Davis experienced a mass shooter attack at her high school in Maryland, where a student in her graduating class fatally shot his ex-girlfriend using his father’s gun. The shooter wounded another student before ultimately taking his own life. In the shooting’s aftermath, Davis found it difficult to acknowledge the trauma she experienced that day.
“Straight after the shooting, I was kind of in, like, autopilot,” Davis recalled.
It did not help that some members of Davis’ local community sought to minimize the traumatic event due to the low number of fatalities and injuries in the shooting. It was not until Davis’s second year of college—after enduring severe bouts of emotional distress and struggling to attend classes—that she decided to seek treatment for her trauma.
“It definitely has helped me get out of my own head and, like, process how I’m feeling in a nonjudgmental environment,” said Davis, who graduated college with a double major in political science and theater this year. She has since been working periodically with her therapist, whom she originally connected with through her alma mater’s mental health services.
Research suggests mass shooting survivors are at greater risk of developing mental health challenges compared to survivors of other types of trauma. Moreover, about 28% of people who have witnessed a mass shooting develop PTSD, while a third of mass shooting survivors develop acute stress disorder, according to estimates by the National Center for PTSD.
A supportive environment is particularly important for younger children who experience trauma as they may regress in their learned behaviors or react to things in a negative manner in their trauma response. Parents and family members are crucial in helping the child’s recovery, primarily by rebuilding the child’s shattered sense of security. That starts with acknowledging the child’s traumatic experience and helping them understand what happened using age-appropriate language instead of sweeping it under the rug, Vazquez said.
“There are a lot of … changes in behavior that are telling, and the adults need to understand this so that they can reassure the child, ‘Mom and Dad are here. We are here to protect you, to help you,’” said Vazquez, who frequently works with BIPOC children and families dealing with trauma and other mental health disorders.
According to the American Psychological Association, ensuring trauma survivors feel connected to their communities and other supportive resources is essential in helping them through recovery. Davis, for example, joined an online support group run by survivors of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. For her, being able to connect with other survivors who went through a similar experience as she did has been a lifeline.
“That group has saved my life,” Davis said. “Having that online space of people across the country who truly understand each other, that is the best thing that has happened to me.”
Offline, community vigils, memorials, and other community practices in the wake of a mass tragedy have been found to help survivors in their healing process. Local organizers in Uvalde and Buffalo, New York—where a white supremacist killed 10 people a little more than a week prior to the Uvalde school shooting—have been providing supportive services for residents affected by the attacks. These collective efforts in community recovery are helpful in supporting children recovering from trauma as well as showing them that they are not alone.
Ideally, environments outside of their family, like school and other community groups, can also be places where both children and their parents are able to seek support in learning best practices to help a child heal from trauma, Vazquez said.
“The people that surround children have to be trauma-informed” and cognizant of trauma, she said. “Because trauma happens more than we care to admit.”