Mass Shootings On My Mind: How Healing Trauma Heals Us All

By Derri Smith, Founder

Fewer and fewer people in our society can take comfort that trauma is someone else’s problem. A study reported in the August 4, 2019 Los Angeles Times makes it clear that another person’s trauma should be very much our concern. In fact, as demonstrated in recent mass shootings, it could become a matter of life and death.

Jillian Peterson, a psychologist, and James Densley, a sociologist, wrote about their two-year study of the life history of mass shooters in the United States. They studied the shooter in every killing of four or more people in the past 20 years. The data they gathered points to four commonalities among perpetrators. The first commonality on their list:

“The vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying. The trauma was often a precursor to mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, thought disorders or suicidality.”

Mass murder is the extreme end of where untreated childhood trauma leads. Human trafficking survivors are victims of complex trauma, which occurs repeatedly and cumulatively over a period of time. The vast majority were abused as children.  I do not personally know of a human trafficking victim who became a mass murderer. But consider how our community suffers because of trauma.

Trauma leads to depression, feeling disconnected, unable to trust, addictions and other unhealthy attitudes. These conditions lead to crime, heavy reliance on others to manage life, academic and workplace failure and a burden on the healthcare and legal systems. And, yes, sometimes it leads to violence. None of this is good for the community. There is no attempt here to suggest that brewing beneath the pain of a human trafficking survivor is the next mass shooter. But society pays a heavy toll for trauma, and far greater in cases of untreated trauma.

“Second, practically every mass shooter we studied had reached an identifiable crisis point in the weeks or months leading up to the shooting. They often had become angry and despondent because of a specific grievance,” say Peterson and Densley.

We see those crisis points in the up-and-down trajectory of a human trafficking victim’s long climb to emotional stability. End Slavery Tennessee and other trauma-informed care centers watch for the crisis points and provide the therapy and extra support needed to get the survivor through.

The other two commonalities the study found among mass shooters were that most studied other shooters, seeking validation for motives, and that all had the means to carry out their plans.

Any way you look at, anyway you experience it, trauma affects us all. Those who suffer trauma are the first victims. We do well to treat each with compassion and get them the extraordinary care they need. Otherwise, not only do those first victims suffer. We all do.

Identified incidences of human trafficking are on the rise, and with it complex trauma. Short of fixing societal ills and ending human trafficking, we must make healing from trauma a higher priority than it has ever been before. What that requires…I’ll save for a future blog.

I am so proud of the survivor care team at End Slavery Tennessee. They give their all, both for survivors and for the community. Team members are hard-working professionals. They are also human beings who emotionally suffer secondhand trauma.

If we are not the first victim of trauma, we will certainly be among the second victims. Trauma is like second-hand smoke. It envelops us all.