How families can cope with trauma after deadly UNC Charlotte shooting

How families can cope with trauma after deadly school shooting

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - How do students and families even begin to process what happened with the deadly shooting at UNC Charlotte Tuesday?

Everyone handles it differently, but there are some things to look out for. Physical wounds can heal but psychological ones can last longer.

WBTV spoke with Dr. Dawn O’Malley, a licensed psychologist with Cardinal Innovations, about how families can cope with trauma after the tragic event.

O’Malley says it’s not only people in the room who are experiencing trauma after the deadly shooting.

“Really anyone who has a connection the university, particularly if they have a student there or if anytime during the events that unfolded they feared for the life of somebody that they cared about - they are vulnerable to the symptoms of trauma, that are associated with trauma,” O’Malley said.

Symptoms of trauma can be categorized into four areas, O’Malley says.

The first is that we become more hypervigilant. “So having exaggerated startled response for a period of time after an event like this,” O’Malley explains.

The second condition, which O’Malley calls “very serious,” is flashbacks. “So, we’re sort of literally consciously leaving where we really are and physically back in the moment,” O’Malley says.

Avoidance is another symptom, O’Malley says, where “the person will try really hard to avoid anything that reminds them them of the place where it happened. But then anything that will remind them of that event as well, other kinds of things that became associated.”

Re-experiencing the event without wanting to is another symptom to watch for. “So, we might be having nightmares about it,” O’Malley says.

Changes in mood and a change in how we feel about something is an additional symptom O’Malley referenced. “So if before the event we sort of felt like the world was a safe place, and generally people are good - and then we find ourselves thinking oh my goodness, it rearranges how we think about things.”

“So what is important for folks to know is that anyone who was there on campus, again, who had a connection with campus and felt fear at some point - is vulnerable or actually very well may have one or all of those symptoms for a period of time after the event. A couple of weeks. A month,” O’Malley says. “That’s really your brain trying to keep you safe, right?”

O’Malley says the symptoms should eventually go away, and if they don’t, O’Malley says, " it’s really important to reach out to somebody."

Now is the right time for parents and anyone close to someone affected by the shooting to make themselves available, O’Malley says.

“Parents may make a comment to their students. We understand or we know how difficult this might be. We are open to talking about it. ‘Hey, why don’t you come up for dinner tomorrow?’” O’Malley says.

How hospitals prepare to handle trauma patients and the mental health impacts

Physicians with Atrium Health, formerly Carolinas Medical Center, says a tragedy can affect the entire community deeply.

Dr. Addison May, chief of acute care surgery, says when a tragedy such as the shooting at UNC Charlotte occurs, they work hard to respond effectively and provide the best care to patients.

“As a level one trauma center, we are prepared 24/7 365 days of the year to receive trauma victims and respond to them efficiently and quickly,” May says.

Atrium Hospital says they offer the only local trauma survivors’ network which is a part of a national organization that identifies survivors and volunteers that work with new patients and their family to help them get over hurdles.

Psychiatrist Dr. Rodney Villanueva says the significance of a school shooting is tremendous because students should feel safe.

Villanueva says just because a person didn’t witness the shooting doesn’t mean they won’t be affected by the tragedy.

He says people can often become depressed and see the world as threatening after traumatic events.

Villanueva says survivors and those affected by the shooting should feel encouraged to reach out to a mental health professional.

People impacted by the shooting at UNC Charlotte can call Atrium’s 24/7 Behavioral Health helpline at 704-444-2400.

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