Psychological Implications of the Connecticut School Shooting

A lone gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults including himself at a Connecticut) School He used guns registered to his mother. The emergence of ASD and PTSD Acute Stress Disorder and/ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) were identified as happening after a major incident such as this one. The symptoms that can be present in this situation were reviewed as well as some possible long term effects. The grieving process was also discussed. In the aftermath of such situations, attention is often focused on people with mental illness who might have the potential do do violence and/or commit a copycat crime even though in retrospect this is very small proportion of the population.The gun control issue and related psychological factors were also discussed.

I am writing this blog one day after the horrific massacre at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. Thus far it is known that a 24 year old man shot and killed his mother and then took three weapons including automatic assault rifle, dressed in combat gear and  appeared at the school where his mother taught. He was recognized as the son of a teacher and was buzzed in. He then killed 4 adults including the principle who had recently  instigated stricter security measures at the school and 20 students between the ages of 6 and 10 as well as himself. There was one report that he had some kind of argument at the school the day before the shooting. There are also descriptions that he was a troubled kid in school who had no friends and was very shy. He was said to be very bright in math. It was suggested that  he may have had Asperger’s Syndrome and was on the Autism Spectrum. Another report said that he spoke of demons and therefore suggesting he may have been paranoid with schizophrenia. His parents were divorced after 17 years of marriage and his mother was reported as very protective. He has a brother at college.

I have no idea of his diagnosis and would not make any attempt to speculate on on the nature of his mental condition.

Psychological Trauma 

Common wisdom and research in this area tell us  that the closer a person is to the traumatic event,  the more likely and the more severe the psychological trauma will be. This however is a complicated issue. Certainly the adults and children who witnessed the shooting (including of course anyone wounded ) would be directly effected.  This would include anyone in the school  who heard sounds and participated in the terror of hiding and escaping from danger.

The two conditions that will emerge from such an incident  are  Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) . According to the Diagnostic Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM IV), the necessary requirement for both of these conditions must include the following :

The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following were present.

1-The person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.

2- The person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror (in children, this may be expressed instead by disorganized or agitated behavior.)

In addition for us to make a diagnosis of ASD there needs to be three or more  symptoms such as  numbing, detachment, absence of emotional responsiveness or reduction in awareness of his or her surroundings (being in a daze) or derealization ( things don’t seem real) or depersonalization ( you don’t feel like yourself) , a tendency to re-experience the event by flashbacks, an avoidance phenomena related to recollection of the traumatic event, impairment of social and other areas of functioning, increased  anxiety and arousal with sleep and concentration problems and a duration of these symptoms  2 to 4 weeks.

In order for us to make diagnosis of PTSD  there needs to be similar symptoms as ASD with one or more symptoms of recurrent and intrusive recollections (manifested in young children by repetitive play), recurrent dreams, re-experiencing the traumatic event with illusions , hallucinations and flashbacks , physiological reactions, , persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, numbing , efforts to avoid thoughts and feelings related to trauma, decreased interest or estrangement, inability to have loving feelings, insomnia, outbursts of anger , exaggerated startle response  impairment in social functions, with a t least one of these symptoms lasting more than one month.

For more detailed and exact definitions see the DSM IV (or the new DSM V which may be somewhat revised )

Trauma Not Limited to Immediate Geographic  Area

The development of these symptoms is not limited to people in the immediate vicinity.

Classmates who didn’t attend school that day can have symptoms as can people all over the world who are traumatized by accounts in the media which vividly reconstruct the events and allow others to identify with the victims. There will be very few school age children in the U.S. who will not have heard about the details of this event

I recall at the time of the Challenger disaster, we saw school children all over the country effected by seeing this spacecraft carrying the astronauts and some teachers disintegrate before their eyes on television . Similar situations have happened in other tragedies, which are covered, on TV.

Long Term Effects

It should be recognized that the acute and  long term psychological  effects of this trauma  goes beyond the two disorders described above The experience also  becomes woven in the psychological makeup of people who are impacted by it whether near or far where it happened . For some, the innocence of childhood is taken away . The sense of security is changed forever. Long after the acute symptoms are gone, the effects of this event will have changed the individuals who experienced it. In some cases it will be a determining factor in how they will mold their future lives. Perhaps they will always be a cautious person, looking for unexpected danger. In other ways, the trauma can motivate persons to become doctors, nurses, police, researchers or influence the way they view their own lives for better or worse.

The Need for Immediate Psychological Intervention;

There has immediately been an outpouring of offers of psychological help.

I am sure the school system ,local and state agencies  will bring in counselors and therapists. Local mental health professionals  will ofter their help. I know the Committee on Disasters of the American Psychiatric Association ( of which I have been a member ) has offered the local Psychiatric Society materials and information that can be useful . There has been offers from International Groups that have experience  with these situations as well as from the Red Cross and from the nearby Yale Child Study Group. There will be individual and group meeting with the teachers and counselors as well with parents and of course with the children. The teachers will be trained how to be sensitive to the reactions of the children. It is important that all involved be aware of the various symptoms that can develop after events like this (some of which were described above) Danger signals need to be picked up. I am sure a wide variety of techniques will be used for one to one therapy  as well as in groups. Talking in groups can be useful for many but for others individual sessions can be very helpful  or a combination can  be used. For some of the children, the comfort of discussions and interactions with their parents will be  most important. Some parents will know how to handle this, other parents will benefit by discussion or counseling. I don’t believe there is one method which needs to be applied. The techniques used in individual and group treatment can cover a wide range from catharsis which involves expressing  one’s experience and feelings, Cognitive Behaviors Therapy ( CBT) which uses correcting misconceptions  and directly dealing with ideas and behavior and  psychodynamic therapy  where underlying meaning is explored and interpreted. In some acute situations medication (anti-anxiety or other stronger tranquilizers  can be used and when conditions  such as major depression is identified, antidepressants may be prescribed.  Other techniques and combinations of approaches will be used especially the human support and caring offered by people near and far and by such groups as the Red Cross which will be quite useful and meaningful.

Grieving the Loss of Life.

As most of us know grieving is a very intense process. Kubler-Ross described five stages of grief ; denial,, bargaining , anger , depression and acceptance. However, when there is unexpected death, traumatic death especially by murder and death of children, the grief takes on a different pattern which has been labeled Complicated Grief. We can expect the anger and depression to be greatly intensified and the duration of the intense emotions to be much more prolonged especially when there is the loss of a young child. Ultimately various types of memorials to the lost child which can give significances to the lost out life can be helpful

Concern About Other Disturbed Individuals Including Copycat Incidents

It is only natural that there will be concern on all levels that disturbed individuals who might do anything like this incident should be identified , receive help and be safely  in a place where they can not harm anyone. This problem is accentuated at the time of such an incident and in the immediate aftermath since we know that sometimes in the mind of a severely mentally disturbed person, media reports of this event have  the possibility of precipitating a copycat pattern of behavior in another disturbed person. The presence of mental illness is usually identified by family , friends and teachers at an relative early point in life. While there has been great progress in providing mental health care in the United States since the 1960s , there are still people who do not get the care that they need because of finances and the unavailability of services. Quality health care should be available to everyone and this includes those with mental illness.

The Overwhelming Majority of People with Mental Illness are Not Dangerous

Only a very small percentage of people with mental illness are a serious danger to other people. An incident such as this school shooting invariably unfairly intensifies the stigma towards people with mental illness. This can hinder recovery and adaptation to this condition. We need continued research in identifying people who could be dangerous and we also need to understand and educate the public about mental illness.

The Gun Control Issue and The Psychological Implications.

We don’t yet know the history and the story why the Connecticut shooter’s mother   had registered guns in the house. I would guess that most probably if there were not these guns in the house ( which included automatic weapons ) that untold psychological trauma would not have occurred. The young man may have done something terrible but if guns were not available to him, the   chances are,  not as many people would have been killed.

I also wonder about the psychological effect of his growing up in a household where such guns were owned , kept and valued. I understand the argument that most gun owners may teach their children about gun safety. However when there are guns present, there may very well be the underlying message to a disturbed child, that when you are angry this is the way that you can act.


My Experience During 9/11

At the time of the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 I reflected on my experiences at that time. The phenomena of “missing persons” posters which appeared throughout Manhattan shortly after the tragic events is discussed as well as some other observations about this fateful event.

Several weeks ago we commemorated the 10th anniversary of 911 and like many of you. I reflected back on what I was doing and how that event impacted on our lives. The latter question will require much more continued contemplation. However, the memories of that day and subsequent weeks were quite meaningful.

I lived in the northern suburbs of New York City at the time and the local newspapers had photographs of cars in train station parking lots that were not picked up by commuters who had perished in the World Center attack. I did not think that I knew anyone personally who died or had a close family who was killed  in the tragedy. Several months later I found out that  a chaplain with whom I worked with from time to time at the medical center had lost his son who worked at the World Trade Center. Over the ensuing years I saw many patients whose lives were impacted significantly by this event and worked in intensive therapy with several of them.

On the morning of 9/11/01 I was at Westchester Medical Center when I heard of the unfolding events. The nearest television set was on a psychiatric inpatient service near my office. I sat with staff and patients and watched the second plane hit the tower. Although many of the patients had severe acute mental illness-schizophrenia, other psychosis, suicidal behavior etc., we all responded in the same manner. There were groans and tears and statements of  “those poor people.” There was no panic and no apparent incorporation of this reality into the patient’s delusions. It has been shown that people with decompensated mental illness often show improvement at least in their short term symptoms when they are faced with emergency or tragic events.

I was reminded of an experience I had while I was in training in New York City many years previously when there was a sudden unexpected blackout with loss of power citywide for at least several hours. I also was visiting on a psychiatric inpatient service when it occurred and most people handled it quite well. I eventually published a paper how this event did interact with the psychopathology of a two patients.

By coincidence I was scheduled to give a Grand Rounds presentation on September 21 , 10 days after 9/11 at a hospital in downtown Manhattan from which you would have been able to see the World Trade Center. Ironically the topic of my talk had been about disaster psychiatry but I changed it to specifically allow a discussion on how my colleagues had responded and what they had done to address the mental health issues related to this tragedy in their backyard. A center had been set up on Pier 92 for the survivors, families and friends  of the victims. Mental health professionals from all over the Metropolitan area donated their services to work with the Red Cross in helping these people with their physical and emotional needs.

At the time of this presentation, I walked around downtown Manhattan and the area surrounding ground zero. I noted the presence of something very interesting there and also scattered throughout Manhattan.. There were posters with pictures made by family and friends of people who had been in the World Trade Center at the time of the tragic events and did not come home. The posters, as you can see, were made from the point of view that these people were “missing.” They provided a description of the person with the request that if anybody were to see them they should call a specific telephone number. There were numerous such posters. The fact is that people were not found wondering throughout the city. The relatively few injured people who were brought to the hospital were identified and families were notified. Of course, the New York City morgue had a very sophisticated system of trying to contact any family members if they had made identification of the remains of victims. So what were these posters about?

They obviously were part of the denial phase of  the acute complicated grief that the survivors were beginning to feel as on some level they realized their  loved ones were killed. Within the next two weeks people began to make alterations in these posters which showed that they recognized that these people had died.  They crossed out the words “lost” or  “missing” and would write things like “in memory of”. The posters now would be adorned with flowers. I don’t recall this phenomena ever being reported in the psychiatric literature.

While I did not participate in the work on Pier 92, I was asked to do some “debriefing” activities for some organizations. One such group was the personnel of a major TV network. (I had done some previous work identifying the psychological trauma that members of the working press often experience in the course of their work). I was the co-leader of this group with a Professor from the Columbia School of Journalism.  Prior to this time debriefing activities would have meant trying to get the participants to express their emotional reactions to their recent experience in the disaster. More recent research had suggested that this wasn’t the best approach. In fact,  it might even make things worst. So our approach was a much more general approach in which we acknowledged the type of emotional symptoms that they might experience and made suggestions how to minimize them.

The evening before I worked with this group I had spoken with a family member of mine who told me that she had a dream that the well known television anchor from this network was having a personal conversation with her about the disaster. This dream appeared to reflect the importance that such TV personalities have in reassuring people at the time of frightening events. I was able to tell my relative that I spoke with the TV producer who worked with this anchor and she was going to tell him about her dream .

There has been a great deal written about this disaster in professional journals as well as in other media.We also will dearly hold on to our personal memories of that fateful day. Feel free to relate any of your experiences or thoughts about this day in the comment section below.