Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Facing Another School Shooting- Loss, Fear and Efforts to Cope

On Thursday 11/14/19, a male student opened fire at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California.  Pulling a pistol from his backpack, he killed a 15 year old girl, a 14 year old boy and wounded three others in an attack that lasted 16 seconds. He left his last bullet for himself and died from the self-inflected gunshot wound.

The event leaves a school and community in a state of shock, pain and unthinkable loss. This shooting adds to the already 230 school shootings since Columbine. It terrifies parents, students and communities across the country and retraumatizes so many who have already faced this horror and loss.

More than 187,000 children and teens in the US have been exposed to gun violence in their schools since Columbine in 1999. The impact is felt. In focus groups with adolescent girls run by Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam, authors of Reviving Orphelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, the number one fear discussed was a school shooting. Many girls spoke about their school safety plans and worried that they might not be effective. Some worried about going to college where big lecture halls could be dangerous opportunities for school shooters.

As Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and expert on childhood trauma notes, “It is no longer the default that going to school is going to make you feel safe.”

As a country we need to continue to recognize that even as our schools work to improve safety and security, without gun regulation, our children remain in harm’s way. We need groups like “Mothers Demand Action For Gun Sense in America.

What Can We Do Now?

Our thoughts and prayers go to the children, teachers, parents and community of Santa Cruz.

For all, The Guidelines of Psychological First Aid are valuable in the aftermath of a traumatic event, whether you are directly impacted, emotionally jolted, or retraumatized by it.

Networks of Support

An invaluable source of physical and psychological safety is connection with familiar networks of support. People feel comfort, empathy and validation in community – be it family, friends, school, church or online communities.

It is often helpful for friends and family to have the opportunity to share their feelings about the events, their associations and their fears. Finding out that you are not alone with the emotional impact of a violent and lethal shooting – is helpful.

When a tragic event has harmed or taken those close to us, we often don’t even have words. There are no words. We can’t think and sometimes can’t feel. What we have learned is that the compassionate presence of those we love and those with whom we are most comfortable, helps buffer the anguish and suffering of such loss.

Making Meaning of Common Responses to Trauma

It helps many to understand that there are common stress responses to experiencing and witnessing trauma and traumatic loss. These include symptoms of Hyperarousal, Intrusion or Re-experienceing, Numbing and Avoidance, and Negative Thoughts and Feelings.

Hyperarousal- reflected in an inability to relax, exaggerated startle response, inability to sleep or concentrate and irritability.  It is as if your mind and body does not yet know you are safe. Exercise, play, sports, music, walking pets can help.

Intrusion or Re-experiencing– Feeling caught in the imprint of the trauma, many re-experience the images or sensations felt at the time of the traumatic event. They have nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive memories.

They are the mind and body’s way of assimilating an incomprehensible event into your life experience. Art work, sharing the memories with others, creative projects, recognizing them as part of the experience will help.

Numbing and Avoidance

Numbing is a response to trauma that involves physical and psychological shutdown. Like the other responses to trauma, it is actually a functional way to survive in the face of overwhelming danger. For some teens, children and adults it may be a necessary first survival strategy.

It often helps just being with someone who cares regardless of whether you are walking, cooking, shooting hoops or listening to music takes you away from the trauma and allows you to dare to feel again – a crucial start.

Negative Thoughts and Feelings

It is common that the direct experience, witnessing or learning of a violent event will trigger negative thoughts about the world, excessive blame of self or blame of others. It is important to know that such feelings are part of the fight/flight reaction to an unspeakable event.

It often helps to cognitively accept and reframe these thoughts or feelings as symptoms of traumatic exposure. They will shift as time passes and as you take opportunities to lower your stress level. The use of Mindful Self-Compassion has proven to be very effective in easing and mastering negative thoughts and feelings.

Not everyone experiences these responses and they rarely last more than a few weeks. When they persist, getting professional support can be very helpful.

Access You Coping Skills

In the aftermath of trauma, it can feel as if you are frozen in time with the trauma. The past seems gone and the future seems impossible.

It is really important to reach behind the wall of trauma to your passions and resiliency traits because they still belong to you and they are what you have drawn upon in life to cope in situations of pain, disappointment, adversity and even loss.

Be it physical strength, intelligence, social skills, love of nature, sense of humor, creativity, playing music, mindfulness, spirituality, generosity, gratitude and the wish to help –these strengths are the best of you.

Connecting with Others at the Darkest Times Lights Up the Possibility of Hope and Healing


More Resources Available at the site of The American Group Psychotherapy Association