Impact Of Mass Trauma Plays Out Long After The Tragic Event
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Two communities traumatized by gun violence are grieving new tragedies. Two students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have died by suicide in the last 10 days. And the father of a 6-year-old who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting reportedly took his life yesterday.
We don't know why these three individuals apparently took their own lives. Experts say suicide is usually caused by a mix of different factors. Right after the Parkland shooting last year, we reached out to Dr. Sandro Galea. He's dean of Boston University's School of Public Health, and he researches the impact of mass trauma. Thanks so much for being with us again.
SANDRO GALEA: Thank you for having me, Rachel.
MARTIN: It's just over a year since the Parkland shooting. Can you remind us what are the long-term health impacts on communities that experienced mass trauma like a school shooting?
GALEA: In the weeks and months and years after the mass trauma, what we know happens is a increase in mental disorders. And these mental disorders range, but the most common ones are post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. And we know that after these mass traumatic events, it affects both the people who are directly around the shooting, but also the community members at large. And we've known this now for about the past two decades.
So you see a rise in PTSD, a rise in depression. And these conditions have a number of downstream consequences - suicide, which was in your introduction, being one of them. But they also have downstream consequences on employment and impairment to quality of life. The truth is that we have relatively few concrete studies that document the exact scope of these mental health consequences of mass traumas. But we can infer from studies after other disasters and after large-scale events.
MARTIN: I imagine that PTSD only worsens with repeated exposure, right? Take, for example, someone who lives in a community where a mass shooting happens. Then that person hears on the news or social media about a similar tragedy unfolding in a different place.
GALEA: You're correct.
MARTIN: How does that repeated exposure affect people?
GALEA: It does. It does in an epidemiologic sense. We use the term a dose-response relationship, which means more the dose, the more the response. So somebody who's experienced one trauma has a certain likelihood of a mental illness, two traumas has more, three traumas has more, et cetera.
So what we have seen in this country - and we - our group has done some studies on this, and so have other groups - that people who are experiencing more and more traumatic events are at ever greater risk of mental illness and its consequences. You also brought up something interesting, which is experiencing these traumatic events through television or radio or through social media.
GALEA: And that is, of course, a brand-new set of risks in terms of how much risk that provides in terms of social media and TV. And we don't really know that, although we do know that people who have previously been exposed to traumas in person can get re-triggered with social media and television.
MARTIN: Right, which is complicated because on the one hand, you know, news outlets have an obligation to report what's happened. But we just - you have to be so careful about how we talk about it and making sure people who are hearing conversations like this understand what resources are available to them.
GALEA: No, that's right. I mean, for example, the Centers for Disease Control has media guidelines on this, which most media outlets respect - I think do a very good job of it these days. But broadly speaking, in terms of media, we're talking about avoiding dramatic headlines, avoiding explicit details about the suicide, and sharing stories of hope and healing. And I think the large media outlets do a terrific job on this. I think the challenge becomes in the broad sweep of availability of stories that largely carries through social media. Obviously, in New Zealand...
GALEA: ...We saw this in a dramatic way with the spread of the video through social media. And of course, in that arena, there is much less control over the message that's spread. And that is very dangerous.
MARTIN: I do want to play the voice of the father of the Sandy Hook shooting victim who was just found dead in Newtown, Jeremy Richman. He spoke with NPR in 2017.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JEREMY RICHMAN: I think she's everywhere. She's in the air we breathe. She's in my mind always, and she's in my heart. She's in our children and our spirits. And she's everywhere, but nowhere that I can squeeze and hold.
MARTIN: Your main advice for those suffering out there - get help. Ask for help.
GALEA: There is no question. There is no question that we know that probably one of the biggest risks for suicide, if not the biggest risk, is isolation. If anybody feels that way, anybody feels the way that voice sounded, they should get help - from a friend first, but from a medical provider.
MARTIN: Dr. Sandro Galea is the dean of Boston University's School of Public Health and the author of the upcoming book, "Well: What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Health." Thanks so much for joining us.
GALEA: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: We also want to pause here to note that suicide is preventable. And if you are in crisis right now or you know someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK - T-A-L-K. Or you can text the Crisis Text Line by texting home - H-O-M-E - to 741-741. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.