“Initially, there’s often an outpouring of support—this increased sense of community solidarity, where [survivors] feel very connected to other members of their community,” Littleton says. But eventually that sense of community solidarity goes away.
“It could be because there are divisions in the community about what [they] should be focusing on, or what direction [the community] should be going in,” she adds. “Maybe the community has a negative identity now, so survivors don’t really want to be associated with that community anymore—you don’t want people to think about you as a student at that school, or ‘You were in that community where that horrible thing happened.’ That can fuel a sort of decline in community solidarity, which naturally tends to happen about six months after communal traumas.”
In addition, much of the mental-health support offered to survivors of shootings and the families of shooting victims dissolves around the same time. Counselors and mental-health practitioners who are integrated into the community immediately after the tragedy may leave before the community has truly healed. One case study of the aftermath of a shooting at Dawson College in Montreal found that counselors were readily available on school premises for six months.
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“Separate from the formal support going away, informally, other people are moving on. People aren’t talking about it as much anymore,” she says. “So if you are still struggling—maybe you don’t have those informal supports, and maybe you also don’t have the formal resources anymore—and there’s this expectation that you should be moving on, or that we should not be talking about this anymore. That can fuel more distress.” At Virginia Tech, a “sizable percentage of students” reported elevated symptoms of PTSD one year after the shooting, according to a study Littleton conducted.
“That’s when they noticed a surge [in feelings of distress]—when there was that sense of ‘Well, other people are doing better, but I’m not,’” she says.
The majority of individuals who experience or are affected by mass trauma, Littleton points out, are resilient—they do not develop persistent symptoms. Many report feeling jumpy or edgy or having unwanted thoughts or dreams in the immediate aftermath of the trauma that go away within a few days or weeks, while for others, the symptoms last for a few months and then go away on their own. Survivors who are most likely to show resilience after a shooting are those who had no strong emotional reactions while the shooting was unfolding and those who never felt that they or their loved ones were in danger during the shooting.
Some Virginia Tech students who struggled with anxiety and depression before and at the time of the shooting in 2007, Littleton notes, actually showed improvements in the longer term, seemingly as a result of the solidarity and support they felt. They reported increases in social support, feelings of connection to others, and a sense of purpose in life in the months after the shooting, Littleton says.