Anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder have followed Tia Christiansen, 53, years after the shooting at a Las Vegas music festival left dozens dead.
Christiansen was in a hotel room at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in 2017 when a gunman killed 58 people and left hundreds injured. She recalled the loudness and intensity of the gunfire of 1,000 bullets that she heard from just two rooms down from the gunman, who fired from the window into the crowd.
“Some days, it’s so top of mind and it’s so overwhelming that it’s difficult to get out of bed, and some days it’s not possible for me to get anything done at all,” Christiansen said, who was uninjured in the shooting. “Not even something as simple as the dishes. It’s just too much.”
Every time there’s a mass shooting across the nation, it intensifies Christiansen’s fear of being caught in another one.
“It brings it all back in a very palpable way,” Christiansen said. “My body hurts. A lot of my PTSD symptoms come back 100-fold. It makes it feel like all the progress that has been made can disappear in a moment or a day.”
Research shows that the mental health toll of mass shootings extends far beyond survivors and witnesses. Mass shootings were reported as the most common source of stress among U.S. adults, according to an August 2019 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association.
The 71% stress rate was higher than the stress from health care that year at 69%. And nearly one-third of the U.S. population feared they could not go out in public without the chance of a mass shooting, according to the survey.
“We did the 2019 survey on the heels of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, which, unfortunately, are just way too eerily similar to what we’ve seen in the last couple months,” Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychology Association, told USA TODAY.
So far in 2022, there have been 322 mass shootings where at least four people were shot or killed as of July 8, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
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Patricia Maisch, 73, said her perception of safety in public changed forever after she witnessed the 2011 shooting at a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, where former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords and 12 others were injured. Six people died.
Even 11 years after her experience, Maisch said she remains alert and cautious in public, and she finds herself searching for escape plans and places to hide in case a shooting breaks out.
“Would I hide under a chair, under the seats, behind the desk, if that was how close I was?” Maisch said, describing her thought process if she were at an airport, for example. “Would I run into a bathroom?”
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At least 24% of adults surveyed in 2019 said they changed how they regularly lived due to the fear, the American Psychological Association reported.
Since the Las Vegas shooting five years ago, Christiansen said she hasn’t been to a concert, movie theater, or any large crowds due to her PTSD. Her level of anxiety in large crowds becomes overwhelming to the point where she shakes and cannot speak, she said.
“I do everything I can to avoid putting myself in a position where it feels anything like being back and in a large gathering, which breaks my heart because it really eliminates a lot of opportunity to live a total life of freedom,” Christiansen said.
Shaundelle Brooks, 52, also worries about her safety in public ever since her son was killed four years ago in a shooting at a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee. Her son, Akilah DaSilva, was 23 when he was shot and killed, along with three others.
“Every crowd, everywhere we go, we’re constantly looking,” Brooks said, who lives in Nashville. “We’re constantly thinking that this could happen again.”
She said she worries about her three other children.
“Every time my children walk out the door, every time we leave to go somewhere, I’m constantly in fear of this happening again,” she said.
Brooks founded the Akilah DaSilva Foundation in January 2019 to honor her son and advocate for changes. She also is a Moms Demand Action volunteer with Everytown for Gun Safety, and she said she uses her traumatic experience to advocate against gun violence.
But the constant news of mass shootings affects her grieving process and ability to cope with what happened.
“You get up and you think you’re gonna have a normal day, and then here comes another mass shooting,” Brooks said. “So, it’s no real way of coping with it.”
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, 9 of 10 gun violence survivors deal with trauma from the incident, according to the February 2022 report. About two-thirds of survivors who were shot sought mental health services, therapy, and support following the shooting, the report found.
“Trauma does some crazy things to the brain,” said Tennille Pereira, director of the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, who works with victims of mass shootings. “It puts the brain in this heightened state of fear, and so even though the immediate threat is gone, their brain can often stay in that heightened sense of fear.”
Pereira, who provided legal services for Las Vegas victims and their families, said the fears are a natural response to the trauma endured throughout one’s experience.
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When it comes to coping and alleviating fears, there are different methods but they should center around resilience and maintaining a healthy emotional well-being, said Wright of the American Psychology Association.
“Coping behaviors really differ for people,” Wright said. “So, it could be things like meditation, or going for a walk, being out in nature. All those sorts of things to kind of just shore up your emotional well-being are going to be important.”
Wright said it will take more than one person to help battle these fears. Workplaces, schools and universities need to be helping address this public health crisis, she said.
“We can’t just expect people to self-care their way out of this. We need our systems to support our emotional well-being too,” she said.
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Meanwhile, President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan gun bill on June 25 that would require gun buyers under 21 to undergo an investigative period to examine juvenile and mental health records. It’s one of the most historic gun control deals in three decades.
Brooks said she would feel safer if the lawmakers passed stricter gun control laws that could prevent mass shootings. Her son’s murderer was not legally allowed to possess any firearms.
“I think that that would alleviate some of the fear in survivors and people that have experienced gun violence,” Brooks said.
Until action takes place, the best way to cope is to support communities with gun violence victims, Wright said.
“It’s our responsibility to act in ways to … support survivors and show them that this isn’t OK,” Wright said.
“This isn’t an individual problem,” she added. “This is a larger problem.”
Everytown For Gun Safety has established a community for the millions of Americans affected by gun violence. If you are in the midst of coping with gun violence, you can reach Everytown for Gun Safety at 646-324-8250.
The American Counseling Association has listed mental health resources for disasters here, as well as tips about how to cope in the aftermath of a shooting here.
Contributing: Ella Lee and Candy Woodall, USA TODAY
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