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Psychological Wounds From Carnage Are Deep

Armen Hareyan's picture

The psychological wounds from the deadliest school shooting in US history will take a long time to heal and will spread far beyond the campus of Virginia Tech University.

People caught in the crossfire as South Korean student Cho Seung-Hui, 23, turned his campus into a killing field are most at risk of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the friends and families of the many victims will probably need help dealing with their grief, experts said.

But students who were out of range of his guns could also be deeply affected as their sense of security is erased and they find themselves wondering why it was they managed to escape harm.

"We focus on those who have been killed or injured but there is a large group of students and school personnel who have been impacted," said Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke National Centre for Child Traumatic Stress.

"Part of the recovery is to help students look after each other. We don't want there to be another death because of this event whether it's at-risk behaviour or substance abuse."

Surviving this type of an incident can affect someone for the rest of their lives, Brymer said, noting that she got calls on Monday from students she had counselled after being injured in a California school shooting more than six years ago.

"Kids will have triggers or reminders later. If a potato chip bag pops, that may be a sound similar to the bullets."

One of the reason these incidents have such a wide impact is because they violate our sense of security, Brymer said in a telephone interview.

"Parents allow kids to go to school because it's a safe place. When these incidents happen it shakes us."

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About 70 to 80 percent of people affected by the shooting ought to be able to "gradually work this into the story of their lives and be okay," said Doug Zatzick, a psychiatry professor at the University of Washington.

But there will be a smaller group of people who may not be able to be helped by traditional post-traumatic stress counselling which tries to help people understand that they live in a safe country and that this type of event will not happen again, he said.

"It seems that since 9/11 that model for Americans that we're somewhat invulnerable to stuff like that has been decaying," he said.

Zatzick, who counsels people in Seattle, Washington state, who have been the victim of multiple violent crimes, is among a growing group of therapists who are developing new models to deal with recurrent trauma.

One such technique is mindfulness, a cognitive behaviour technique that uses traditional meditation techniques like breathing and single-pointed concentration to refocus the individual to the current moment while acknowledging that existential threats exist.

A similar technique is being studied by the defence department to help troops in Iraq, he said.

Incidents like this mass murder can be used to promote positive ends, said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist with the National Centre for School Crisis and Bereavement.

"It's a nice time for families to step back, talk to their children about what they've heard and what they think," she said. "It's important to make sure kids feel they can talk to their parents about safety."

Schools can also use this as an opportunity to review their safety plans and "promote resilience" by talking to students about what happened, she said.

"We can't undo it, but the question is where do we go from here," she told AFP. "It is incredibly important to move forward."