Mental Health Impact of School Shootings: Contagion and Vicarious Trauma

Speech for March for Our Lives June 11, 2022, Bellingham, WA

This is a speech I gave in June regarding Sandy Hook and other school shooting contagion. Unfortunately, we are seeing more clusters of shootings leading up to our holiday today. I am thankful for safety today and for the safety of others, healing for these tragedies, and passing on resilience to our following generations. 


Today we are all here to collectively grieve not only each child lost to gun violence but the loss of our sacred safety in educational institutions and other safe havens in our communities. Where it is shocking and devastating to us all, the impact of violence on children begins in the womb. As parents experience direct or vicarious trauma, the effects are passed to the child, forever altering the course of development. This is true for each child experiencing the trauma of mass shootings, whether directly, or indirectly. Adverse childhood experiences lead to long term physiological changes and alterations to the brain that stays with everyone affected and has serious implications to our communities.

Violence begets violence. Like Suicides, mass shootings are contagious. There is a contagion period of about 13 days following a shooting, meaning each shooting will inevitably trigger another, and another. The shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tx marked the 27th school shooting this year and there have been more since. How many is enough?

Gun owner or not, and regardless of political affiliation, American majority believes in stricter gun laws, background checks before purchasing firearms, and policy reform to support public safety for our children. The health of our society depends on it, as research shows that an alarming number of children and teens are already desensitized to the effects of gun violence. This type of desensitization occurs in the face of repeated exposure to the vicarious trauma associated with gun violence.

Already, we have faced a mental health crisis globally in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic that will have lasting effects only compounding with increased exposure to violence. A mental health crisis is sure to have lasting effects for generations to come. In fact, teens impacted both directly and indirectly in school shootings near home experience long term, emotional pain that drastically affects attendance, grades, and ability to plan adequately for the future. There is an alarming 27.8% increase in chronic absences and a 124.5% higher chance of repeating a grade. This educational fallout contributes to earning an average of 13% less income, and they are 15.3% less likely to hold a bachelor’s degree. What potential cheated and lost to gun violence and vicarious trauma. Those of school age in areas surrounding a shooting are also prescribed antidepressants at more than a 20% increase over just three to six months following a school shooting. A promising and desperate call for better and more adequate mental health treatment is heard from the areas without a shortage of behavioral health therapists, as the rate of prescription medications remains closer to the status quo.

We can collectively commit to ending the stigma of mental health treatment through education and connection to our communities. Mental health symptoms can appear directly after an event, or sometimes take months or years to develop after exposure to a mass shooting. Children may appear fine at first but struggle long after the event. Chronic, pervasive patterns of emotions and behavior can be circumvented by adequate treatment and knowing the signs. The signs of acute stress and trauma are often:

  • Frequent crying
  • Clinging to adults more, or to those they associate as safe
  • Sleep problems, including nightmares
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Missing developmental milestones
  • Avoidance
  • Somatic symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Loss of focus, or ambition
  • Depressed symptoms that may include suicidal ideation and desire to kill oneself
  • Teens especially see a higher rate of risky, sexualized behaviors and substance use

The consequences associated with these symptoms, when left untreated, are dire to our society. Emotional and behavioral difficulties associated with the affects of trauma may lead to

  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • A need to feel protected or carry a firearm
  • Angst and aggression that can lead to disciplinary infractions and legal consequences
  • Lack of reaction in the face of gun violence
  • Resistance to mental health and medical care due to distrust of others
  • An increased willingness to use a gun to settle a dispute

Further, emotional, and behavioral problems may lead to difficulty reading social cues, impulsivity and aggression that can lead to violent behavior. Violence begets violence and we can prevent much more of it.

Factors often associated with school shootings, such as toxic stress associated with cyber use and bullying, lead to higher rates of violence and suicide. We must provide an inclusive climate in our schools for all, teach our children adequate conflict resolution and critical thinking skills, and expand access and funding to behavioral health services. The safety and security of our communities is always tantamount to healthy psychological development. We must work together to normalize mental health treatment, combat bullying and toxic stress in our environments, and vote for public safety reform. We can no longer say, “Not I.”

Practical ways to support children and families dealing with behavioral health challenges and exposure to direct or vicarious trauma are to allow a safe and free space to

  • Express emotions in whatever way they need
  • Check on them and ask how they are feeling, rather than focus on the event itself
  • Normalize difficult emotions and experiences in the face of adversity and violence
  • Let them grieve
  • Stick to a family routine as much as possible while being flexible with changes
  • Assure them that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe- And mean it!

It is normal to falter in supporting others, just as it is normal to act out when struggling with symptoms associated with trauma. By seeking support for our own mental health and emotional needs from a partner, friend, clergy, or therapist, we can avoid expressing our rage and frustration with the behavior of those healing from trauma and create a healing space for our children. Let us support each other and lift each other up in our pain and struggle, rather than judge, criticize, and turn away. After Sandy Hook, exemplary author and activist, Anne Lamott wrote, “There were no answers that day, the next day, the day after that. But then slowly, life began to make sense again. Life, death, rebirth-the ultimate truth. Hope returned against all odds, eventually, because Love is bigger than any horrors and barbarity that the world throws at us. We will have hope again because of this love.”

We must love our children and each other through this. Above all, we must teach our children and teens that they are not responsible in any way for these violent acts against them, help them cope with their pain, and allow them to heal effectively so they can go into the world and use their experience to help others. Just as violence begets violence, healing begets healing. Let our next generation be of resilient healers, not shooters.

Watch the speech here:

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