The shootings yesterday in the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. have again had Americans glued to the TV and Internet to watch a tragedy unfold real time in front of their eyes.
According to an article on CNN, the person believed to be responsible for the shooting reportedly had posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD. So what is PTSD? The American Psychiatric Association describes PTSD as a disorder in which symptoms occur in someone who is exposed to a trauma, such as a death or serious injury or violent sexual act.
This trauma can either be as a result of a direct exposure, witnessing that trauma in person, learning about a trauma happening to a close friend or relative, or being in an occupation in which you are exposed repeatedly to trauma.
The psychological reaction to the trauma is then experienced in different types of symptoms such as nightmares, avoiding thinking about the trauma, difficulties in sleep, and worries that the world is a dangerous place.
Although the focus right now may be on the impact of the gunman’s PTSD, it is important to realize that for those individuals who survived the shooting, including those who weren’t directly hurt, but witnessed the events yesterday, may be a risk for developing PTSD symptoms. For those injured in yesterday’s shooting, the emotional injuries may have a bigger impact and may take much longer to heal than the physical injuries.
Even though PTSD is specifically not defined as witnessing a traumatic event through electronic media, watching nonstop on the scene coverage of these types of events such as the Navy Yard shootings may still have a negative impact, especially on children.
Some studies show that children can tell the difference between real violence and make-believe violence and that in fact real violence as seen on TV news created more long lasting emotional reactions.
Preschool and early elementary children should have minimal exposure to violent news. As children get older, they still should not be overexposed to violent media; however, they need to be able to talk with their parents about questions they may have about their own safety or what the outcome of the event was.
For both children and adults it’s important to validate any negative emotional reactions in the wake of the Navy Yard shootings, for example, and remind them that these feelings are normal and common. This is one of the most important things you can do.
Because we know this issue is critically important, here at the Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas’ Level I trauma center we provide a full time psychologist who works with patients and families who sustain a physical injury, including those with injuries and circumstances that put them at risk for developing PTSD. Ongoing clinical research will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of how PTSD affects patients with physical injury, family members and their medical caregivers.