An increasingly-familiar horror washes over you when you watch another mass shooting unfold on television or in social media. It’s a pit-in-the-stomach feeling, a deep ache somewhere in your body that you’d forgotten since the last shooting. Some of us even imagine what it’s like to be there, or what we had in common with the people who were there—I shop at that store. I went to the mall yesterday. I know someone who lives in that city.
While the horror we feel is real, it is far removed from the trauma of hearing gunshots around you, having to run for your life, seeing people die in front of you.
When the discussion after mass shootings inevitably turns to mental health—the mental health of the shooter—we rarely talk about the long-term mental health of survivors. Those who witness and/or are injured in mass shootings are often left with severe trauma and PTSD after their experiences. One tragic example is Austin Eubanks, who survived the Columbine shooting in 1999, but was shot in the hand and knee and witnessed his best friend’s death.
“As a result of my injuries, I was pretty significantly medicated about 45 minutes after being shot. I remember immediately being drawn to that feeling, because it took the emotion away,” he said of the pain medication.
Another familiar story.
It wasn’t long before he developed an opioid addiction that he struggled with through his twenties. After many attempts at treatment, he finally found what seemed to be long-term recovery and devoted his time to speaking about addiction and recovery.
So it surprised many to learn that Eubanks was found dead in his apartment this May of a heroin overdose. He was 37.
The American Psychological Association (APA) explored what happens to those who witness mass shootings first-hand and found that more than a quarter of them develop PTSD and a third of them develop acute stress disorder.
“Simply by definition, mass shootings are more likely to trigger difficulties with beliefs that most of us have, including that we live in a just world and that if we make good decisions, we’ll be safe,” says Laura Wilson, PhD, co-author and editor of “The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings” and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington.
The presence of unresolved trauma and PTSD is an indicator for substance abuse, particularly when the trauma occurred during childhood, as was the case with Eubanks. According to a Centers for Disease Control project on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs):
• For each noted adversity, risk for early initiation of substance abuse increases two to four times.
• Subjects with five or more ACEs are seven to 10 times more likely to become substance abusers.
• Nearly two-thirds of IV drug users report abusive and traumatic childhood events.
• Individuals with three or more traumatic childhood experiences have higher rates not just of alcohol and drug abuse, but also depression, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases and heart disease, according to an ACEs study.
All evidence points to a need for more than mental health triage after mass shootings. The APA finds that ongoing community memorials and gatherings play an important role in healing affected communities. And even just the knowledge that long-term mental health counseling is available increases positive outcomes for those affected.
Bottom line: when we talk about mental health after mass shootings, we should be talking about helping those who have seen the worst. Doing so is vital defense against a heartbreaking cycle of addiction, self-harm and more violence.
Lemonada will discuss addiction in America and how families respond this September on the new podcast, Last Day.