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More Issues Related to the Virginia Tech Massacre

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 21st 2007

Just like everyone else, I am struggling to make sense of the VA Tech shootings. If you haven't already, I encourage you to read the pieces on Mental Help Net written by Dr. Dombeck and Dr. Schwartz. In my humble opinion, each of these pieces are much more informative and thought-provoking than the incredibly short sound bytes and quotes being presented by the news media as "analysis" of the tragedy. No matter how well-spoken or authoritative someone appears or sounds, a few minutes or a few sentences is simply not enough time to coherently and appropriately analyze something as complex as what would drive a young man to engage in this horrifying display of rage and destruction.

In my blog, I'd like to bring up a different twist on the issue. I'd like you, the reader, to take a step back and really think about your own emotional and mental reaction to this tragedy. What emotions are you experiencing today? Shock, sorrow, numbness, fear, anger, disillusionment, grief? A combination? Do your emotional reactions change over the course of the day? Are you having trouble sleeping, concentrating, eating, or remembering even simple tasks? Do you feel panicked or frantic? Are you having nightmares? Are you having repetitive thoughts about the world as an unsafe and uncontrollable place?

These are all common reactions to a stressful event, and you should not feel guilty about these reactions, even if you didn't personally know the professors and students that were killed. To cope with your feelings and reactions, it is important to share your thoughts and feelings with others; eat healthy, rest and exercise; periodically TURN OFF THE TV or STOP READING OR LISTENING TO COVERAGE OF THE EVENT (particularly graphic photos or writings); and find a way to focus on and help others. These feelings and thoughts should dissipate over the course of the next days or weeks.

We know though, that for some people, the feelings and reactions will not go away. Some people can become traumatized "vicariously" by being exposed to information about a stressful event (rather than actually experiencing the event themselves). In these individuals, post-traumatic stress reactions, depression, and/or symptoms of anxiety may come about or intensify. If you notice the following "red flags" in yourself or someone else, please seek professional help:

  • You are unable to continue with your daily activities.

  • You are having thoughts about harming yourself or someone else because life seems no longer worth living.

  • You are becoming increasingly isolated.

  • You are using alcohol or other substances, binge-eating, cutting yourself, etc. as a way to avoid dealing with, to cope with, or to numb your reactions.

  • You are becoming increasingly irritable and angry with loved ones, friends, and/or co-workers

  • You are re-experiencing a former trauma or loss (even one that is not related) through nightmares, or flashbacks

We probably will never have a satisfactory answer to why this tragedy occurred. We don't live in a just world, and life is simply not fair. Human behavior is multi-factorial and complex, and a few people who desperately need help will always slip through the cracks of our mental health system. Please don't compound the tragedy by failing to seek help for yourself if you need it.

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