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Virginia Tech Study Contains Lessons for Fort Hood

The 2007 Virginia Tech massacre resulted in widespread psychological distress among the university's students — whether or not they witnessed the incident firsthand.
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Psychological trauma among Virginia Tech students in the wake of the 2007 mass shooting was widespread and long-lasting, according to newly published research that suggests such tragedies are communal events with far-reaching ramifications.

The research provides insights that could be helpful to members of the Ford Hood community suffering post-traumatic symptoms in the wake of last week's mass killing at the Texas military base, as well as to counselors working with that traumatized population.

Writing in the journals Violence and Victims and Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, a research team led by East Carolina University psychologist Heather Littleton analyzed two surveys of female Virginia Tech students — one taken two months following the April 16, 2007 massacre in which 33 people were killed and 25 wounded, and another taken six months after the tragedy.

The 293 women had all previously completed a survey designed to identify victims of sexual assault. As part of that earlier survey, they had provided detailed information regarding their depression and anxiety levels, as well as on their social support networks. This gave researchers a solid baseline to use when measuring their response to the tragedy on campus.

"At the two-month assessment, 94 percent of participants reported post-trauma symptoms in the past week, with 30 percent of participants scoring above the clinical cut-off," the researchers report. Symptoms included having nightmares about the event, feeling easily startled, emotional numbness or sleeping problems.

"Thirty-six percent of participants reported at least some loss in their sense of life direction, 54 percent reported loss in optimism, and 16 percent reported loss of interpersonal resources," the study found.

A half-year after the tragedy, the numbers were only slightly better.

"At the six-month assessment, 90 percent reported post-trauma symptoms in connection to the shooting in the past week, and 24 percent scored above the clinical cut-off," the researchers report. "A total of 40 percent reported a loss in their sense of life direction, 43 percent reported loss in optimism, and 36 percent reported loss of interpersonal resources."

So why did some of the young women (average age 19) recover psychologically after six months, while a sizable percentage did not? Surprisingly, direct exposure to the incident — 33 percent of the women reported they were in one of the buildings where the shootings occurred, heard gunfire or saw someone who had been killed or wounded — does not seem to be a significant factor.

"This may reflect to some extent the communal nature of mass trauma — that is, all individuals in the community are potentially vulnerable," the researchers write.

Rather, a key predictor of long-term stress was a reported loss of resources following the tragedy. Using the Conservation of Resources Evaluation devised by Stevan Hobfoll of Rush University Medical Center, the researchers asked the students whether they had lost or gained a series of specific resources in the months since the tragedy. These ranged from material possessions to the amount of time spent with loved ones, and such intangibles as hope.

The students who reported the loss of "valued interpersonal and intrapersonal resources" were more likely to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. What's more, "Those who reported less support, as well as greater anxiety and depression symptoms prior to the shooting, evidenced greater post-shooting losses," the researchers report.

These results "highlight the importance of studying and intervening with whole communities, given that distress following such traumas is not limited to those most directly affected," the researchers conclude.

"In addition, results support a need to examine the role of pre-trauma vulnerability in predicting adjustments following mass traumas. The extent to which one is already relatively lacking in resources may strongly relate to the extent to which this loss results in significant and persistent distress."

In other words, in measuring the psychological impact of traumatic events, we may be overestimating the importance of direct exposure to the tragedy, and underestimating the importance of the person's underlying life condition — the resources, tangible and intangible, they have to draw upon. Members of the affected community (be it a university campus or military base) who have poor social support, and are already suffering from anxiety or depression, appear to be at a higher level of risk of posttraumatic stress symptoms — even if their direct exposure to the tragedy was limited to watching the events unfold on television.

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