The Psychological Tragedy of Mass Shootings
COMMENTARY: What is the most effective response to these tragedies in regard to our psychological well-being and the well-being of those affected?
As the school year ends across most of the country, it does so on sad note. 2018 marked one of the deadliest years in history, with mass shootings in schools averaging almost one per week. This doesn’t even count the tragically high number of mass casualties that have occurred in other public places.
Amid all the tragedy, it is clear that these shootings have also become a national obsession. Endless news coverage coupled with in-depth analysis and constant alerts have turned what previously seemed like an anomaly into a daily diet of heartache and tension.
Despite repeated warnings of copycat effects, local and national media regularly feature the most graphic video and analysis available at the top of the newscast. It is safe to say that we as a country are being inundated with mass-shooting news whether we like it or not.
Yet as billions of dollars are being spent in hopes of greater physical safety, it seems that an obvious question is being left out of the conversation. Simply put, the question is as follows:
“What is the most effective response to these tragedies in regard to our psychological well-being and the well-being of those affected?”
It is easy to unconsciously adopt the current prevailing trend, which largely involves consuming media information at unbridled rates and sharing it through various forums with those we know and those we don’t. And yet, what is becoming clear is that we as individuals and a collective body in this country are experiencing heightened anxiety and secondary trauma even if we haven’t known a single individual affected by these horrible events.
If it sounds unbelievable, all it takes is one look at what is happening to our youth in the schools, and I am not talking about physical injury.
Some months ago, I published an article about the psychological toll and possible ways to reduce the markedly high levels of anxiety in our schools today, where students of today are regularly exchanging nonsensical conversations of yesteryear for analysis about the quickest ways to exit the cafeteria and the most likely peers to commit these violent acts. And a picture of a “lockdown song” posted on the board in a kindergarten class quickly went viral.
“Lockdown, lockdown, say no more. Shut the lights off, say no more …”
As shooter-threat drills start to supersede fire and storm precautions, we as a nation have no choice but to begin to address the psychological toll all of this is taking.
As a married father of seven children, I find myself conflicted in multiple ways. I am torn by both my duty to protect and preserve the health and well-being of our family, but also be compassionate to those who have been directly affected by these senseless acts of violence. I must admit that my current mode of operation is to consume as little news as possible and wait on others around me to fill me in on what is going on. The same goes for our children (ranging in ages from 1 to 12), who haven’t seen a news program in years and get the little they know about these tragedies from conversations that come up at school and at home.
For now, they seem only nominally aware of these particular threats. My wife and I are aware to some degree, but we choose to spend most of our time engaged in the countless other activities that call or demand us each day.
Yet while this has seemed to keep our anxiety reasonable, and I often coach parents and youth to only consume media at developmentally appropriate rates (even for us as adults), we as a population must continue to ask what approach is the healthiest and most Christian response. If we don’t, our fear is likely to only increase, and as St. John said, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”
The current omnipresence of mass shootings threatens to damper the love we feel in our daily lives. It threatens to take away the simple joys of eating food with fellow classmates in a cafeteria, going out to the movies or spending time in a busy marketplace surrounded by the amazing diversity of God’s people. It threatens our ability to feel contented even in the safest, most mundane places outside of our homes. It threatens the sanctity of our daily lives, and it is simply not a mode of operation that is reasonable to accept.
There are no simple solutions to this challenge. But, as I noted previously, solutions to the psychological threat must start with an understanding that resiliency begins with healthy practices (e.g., sleep, diet, exercise) and an intentional attitude that we take toward only allowing and consuming media that is used for formative purposes.
I am the first to admit that some of my internet reading on the tragedies has been done purely out of curiosity, after the details I “needed to know” had long been established. And as I was reading these articles, I knew that I was only reinforcing a 24/7 news culture that lives off “curiosity clicks” just like mine. If the high demand wasn’t there, the extensive coverage wouldn’t be either. I would propose that all of us should consider what we need to know and what just satisfies a peculiar draw that all human beings seem to have to tragedy.
But in saying all this, you may wonder if I am forgetting about the victims of these tragedies and the Christian response that is demanded of us. You could also ask if I am forgetting about the forgotten victims of starvation and genocide and human trafficking, and all manner of other atrocities, that exist across this country and the world.
The honest answer is that in my busy, sometimes self-focused life, I forget about so many people who endure calamities that I cannot imagine. It is not an excuse, but a reality; and yet, because these mass shooting are so public, so salient at this point in our nation’s history, I feel at least a simple reply is in order. And here it is. I need to figure out a better way, in my limited knowledge of these circumstances, to garner a more compassionate response to the plight of others, no matter what tragedies they face. Maybe it is through prayer; maybe it is through sending money to relief agencies; maybe it is through sending a letter of condolence to those affected by these events; maybe it involves more.
But in the meantime, I know where my impact is greatest. It is here in my home, and it is in the ways that my wife and I are trying to raise our children to be healthy, happy, holy people, through both what we say and do.
Our home must be a sanctuary, and the actions we take in our schools and places of worship must always remind ourselves that death is not the greatest threat to love.
Fear is. It is time that we as families, communities and a nation start a serious conversation about ways to minimize the real threat of fear, not just bodily harm.
Jim Schroeder, a married father of seven children, is a pediatric psychologist.