Communal Healing

Mass trauma and mental health

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

When tragedies strike that affect communities or the nation as a whole, it is important to take the time to care for mental health. Sometimes traumas can cause mental distress not only for those directly involved, but for widespread publics too.

These mass traumas, be they natural disasters or violence caused by man, have the potential to cause emotional distress for many. Research into how such events interact with mental health can help us understand how best to cope with a tragedy.

Mass Trauma and Resources

One study, led by Heather Littleton, PhD, East Carolina University, explored the emotional responses of female students to the 2008 Northern Illinois University shooting.

“Loss of resources” in the subjects’ lives was a focus in this research. This included both psychosocial resources (like quality of sleep and sense of humor) and resources related to employment (like a sense of understanding from supervisors and a stable job).

The students surveyed were participating in another study at the time of the shooting, providing Littleton and team baseline information on their prior levels of psychological distress. They also completed online surveys both 27 days after the event and eight months later.

Of the 588 women who completed all the surveys, 95 percent reported some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the initial response, and 80 percent did so at the eight month survey.

Psychosocial resources were also particularly affected, with 93.5% reporting some loss of resource. According to the authors, “the most frequently reported lost resources were motivation to get things done (52 percent), time for adequate sleep (50 percent), feeling that your life is peaceful (47 percent), and sense of optimism (40 percent).”

According to the researchers, these results suggested “interventions focused on helping individuals restore psychosocial resources in the aftermath of a mass trauma may be particularly helpful” in helping people cope.

More research should be done to explore the connection between resource loss and emotional recovery after a traumatic event.

Healing Online

Another study explored how online social media could potentially help people cope with difficult emotions after a mass trauma.

Also looking at students at Northern Illinois University (NIU), plus students at Virginia Tech, the study looked into how the subjects used the internet (specifically Facebook) in relation to the shootings that occurred on their campuses.

The study, led by Amanda M. Vicary, PhD, University of Illinois, surveyed 124 students from Virginia Tech and 160 students from NIU. The survey, whose participants were 65 percent female with an average age of 21, was completed two weeks after the respective shootings.

Results showed that 71 percent of the subjects were experiencing significant symptoms of depression, and 64 percent were experiencing significant symptoms of PTSD.

Facebook groups were a popular occurrence after these events, and 89 percent of those surveyed had joined at least one group related to the shootings. In addition, 78 percent had used an online instant message service to discuss the events. Overall, the subjects reported feeling better after participating in these online trauma-related activities.

Six weeks later, the students were contacted again to explore how this may have interacted with symptoms of depression and PTSD in the long-term. Levels of symptoms for both of these decreased significantly from the results at the initial survey, and level of online action did not seem to be tied to these symptoms six weeks later.

While the students did report feeling better in the short term after taking action online, according to the authors, “results indicated that these online activities did not affect changes in wellbeing over time.”

It seems that online activities could create a short term sense of connection and support while coping with a crisis, but is not enough to improve long-term healing from the emotional distress of these mass traumas.

First Steps

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a number of ways to help care for mental health after a mass trauma, including remembering that time is a big factor in emotional healing.

It is not uncommon to feel anxiety, anger or helplessness after such events.  The CDC suggests talking to family, friends and clergy about these feelings, and accepting their help and support.

Eating healthy meals and making sure to stay physically active are important factors to both your emotional and physical well being. Keeping up with healthy habits and trying to follow a normal routine are important steps to take.

The CDC recommends limiting your exposure to coverage of the events that affected you, by trying not to dwell or obsess over news reports.

For some, helping other people can be a huge boost to their own mental well being. Not only will you feel good and be providing help to others, but volunteering also helps keep you busy - another important factor in mental health post-tragedy.

Despite these great tips, people often need additional support after traumatic events, and according to the CDC, "you may need to consider seeking professional help if you feel sad or depressed for more than two weeks, or if you are not able to take care of your family or do your job."

These mass traumas, some preventable and some inevitable natural disasters, are certain to occur from time to time. By continuing to research into how these affect mental health on a widespread scale and searching for new possible methods of coping, we can learn how to better recover from such tragedies.  

Review Date: 
July 21, 2012