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School shootings and PTSD: Trauma can last for months or years

Students at Chardon High School outside of Cleveland are reeling after a school shooting that left three students dead and two others injured.
 
“It’s just a nightmare I’m waiting to wake up from,” said Mike Wargo, a senior who heard the gunshots shortly after leaving his friends in the school’s cafeteria.
 
“I can’t even imagine what the parents feel right now,” Wargo told TODAY's Savannah Guthrie through tears. ‘”I wish I was there. I’d rather take bullet for one of those five.”
 
Neither Wargo, nor most of the high school’s students were physically hurt in the attack.  But they may suffer psychological scars of guilt and grief. Mental health experts say the echoes of such a trauma can last for months -- or if untreated -- for years. 

Grief counselors are on hand to talk to students, teachers and parents affected by the Chardon, Ohio school shooting.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition spurred by a terrifying event. The symptoms interfere with daily life and can include flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, and even physical aches and pains. 
 
“We don’t want kids to have to deal with these symptoms for the rest of their lives,” said Dr. Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs with the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. “They need to get the message that … there are treatments.” Brymer has studied incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder after school shootings in Southern California in 2001 and at Virginia Tech in 2007.
 
Brymer notes that a certain amount of anxiety and stress following such an event is normal and expected. Students may not sleep well. And rumors flying about what happened exacerbate the situation.
 
Many students wrestle with guilt about whether they could have stopped the shooting or done more to save a friend or peer. In her research of the Santee, Calif., shooting that left two students dead and 13 wounded, Brymer discovered that about 40 students had information about possible threats before the shooting occured. Those people needed extra support, she said.

But not every student will react the same. 
 
“Not everyone who has been through a school shooting will get PTSD,” Brymer says. “It’s the kids who were directly exposed who are more at risk.”
 
That could include students who were in the cafeteria at the time of the shooting, those who had a friend who was killed or injured, or those who provided first aid to someone who was hurt.
 
In her research following a 2001 shooting at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., Brymer found that about 12 percent of the 1,160 students screened had some symptoms of PTSD nine months later.
 
And nearly a quarter of the students who were directly exposed to the violence suffered from some degree of PTSD nine months later, according to the study.
 
Whether and how quickly a student bounces back from the trauma of a school shooting depends on factors including the person’s social support system and individual ability to cope with stress, Brymer said. Kids with a history of mental illness or other traumas may struggle more. Girls and younger teens tend to be at higher risk for developing PTSD after trauma.

Brymer’s research highlights the importance of schools screening students for PTSD following a shooting, and the value of continuing to provide services even months after the event. She urges students, parents and staff to monitor their friends and peers for behavior changes or signs of ongoing stress.
 
“It’s important to recognize those who are truly struggling,” she said. “We know that there are effective treatments that help these students. There are mental health professional trained in trauma and grief and we want to connect them.”

In Chardon, all local schools are closed and the school district is providing free grief counseling. School District Superintendent Joe Bergant told a news conference that the community needed to spend time "reflecting on family." He added, "I hope every parent, if you haven't hugged or kissed your kids in the last couple days, you take that time."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a number of students had information about threats prior to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting; research in fact revealed that about 40 students had information about threats leading up to the 2001 Santee, Calif., school shooting.