Will the kids who survived a mass shooting survive? - (8/23/2022)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Jim Bob was waiting for the pharmacist to fill his prescription. Bored, he wanted to strike up a conversation with the busy man behind the counter. "Hey, Doc. That Uvalde Texas school shooting was 3 months ago now. I guess things will return to normal when school opens again." "You're kidding, right?" the pharmacist responded as he counted out Jim Bob's pills "5-10-15-20…" "I mean, the dead kids will be missed. But kids tend to forget things more easily and move on with their lives.”

The pharmacist did not want the visuals of a mass shooting of young children and their teachers in his head right now. Being an innocent 10-year-old kid and witnessing the slaughtering of his friends and their blood and tender body parts splattering against the walls – there are few words for what that looked like, felt like, smelled like. And the pharmacist was not even there. He doubts that even the most well-adjusted child could survive a shattered mind, even if he survived physically. At a time when there are more active shooter drills than fire drills, we have become so desensitized to the regular onslaught of mass killings that – unless we know someone who was directly involved – we tend to resume our daily activities unscathed. Parkland? Sandy Hook? Virginia Tech? They all tend to blend together in our brains. 

The trauma will forever impact children who have witnessed a shooting. Like soldiers who come back from war, shell-shocked and sleepless for the rest of their lives – these kids suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Similar to sexual abuse, kids can become withdrawn from school and relationships with family and friends. They can develop eating disorders. These kids cannot sleep, or they have terrifying nightmares. They may commit suicide. “Makes you wonder who is worse off,” said Jim Bob. “The dead kids or the messed-up kids.”

Which kids are at risk for PTSD? Risk factors include previous trauma exposure, such as a chaotic home life, and pre-existing psychiatric disorders, such as bed-wetting or ADHD. The psychological status of a parent also comes into play. Example: Does a parent have depression, anxiety, bipolar illness, or any other condition that intrudes on the child's mental development? Psychiatric researchers have also found that, in adolescents 13 to 18 years old, the incidence of PTSD is almost 4-fold higher for females than males. Unfortunately, researchers have not thoroughly studied the effects of school shootings in children aged 12 years and younger. But you can bet Jim Bob's bottom bullet that researchers will closely monitor those youngsters as they age. 

The pharmacist remembers a number of harrowing events that badly shook him, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, all the way to 9/11 and the January 6 US Capitol Attack. And while he will remember them for the rest of his life, he did not witness them firsthand. Directly observing the event – as did the survivors and first responders of the Uvalde massacre – resulted in the greatest harm. For example, in one unrelated study of a fatal sniper attack at an elementary school, the children who saw the event unfold, were the ones who suffered the most – 77% of those on the playground developed mild-to-moderate PTSD symptoms compared with only 26% of those children who were absent that day. 

As the pharmacist handed Jim Bob’s pills to him, he said that most of these kids will not heal with the purchase of a distraction, such as an expensive toy. Instead, they must be listened to, observed for behavioral changes, and loved. Here, “time heals all wounds” does not apply. And damn the NRA for their greedy hand in this.

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press. 

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.

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