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Mass traumas ripple across towns — and time

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School shook everyone in Newtown, Conn., including the first responders, who will be undergoing counseling. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

A serial tragedy — like Friday's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children dead — is like “a big rock thrown in a pond,” grief experts say, casting emotional ringlets that drench those closest to the bloodshed in life-changing despair and bathe entire communities and even distant observers in sorrow.

"What happens after that rock lands in the pond? The waves circulate out from ground zero. There are the victims. And these (at Sandy Hook Elementary School) are babies, so unbelievably sad,” said Dr. Jeff Dolgan, chief psychologist at Children's Hospital in Denver. “Some people are not even directly touched by the trauma but are in fact traumatized — think about the other kids at the school, the administrators at the school, the first responders, the caregivers. Then the waves radiate out from the school into the community."

Those ripples may initially unite a town in candlelight and song then splinter it into a torrent of blame and lawsuits, as happened after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 that killed 12 students and one teacher and injured 24 others.

"At Columbine, the impact was very widely felt. I talked to the people who were dealing with the fatalities at the hospitals. They had caregiver trauma. They did everything they could with the influx of severely injured but felt inadequate to the task,” he added.

After the Columbine massacre, Dolgan and his colleagues aligned with mental health experts in Jefferson County, Colo., launching a hotline where local parents could call for advice on soothing their own kids' anxieties. On Friday, Dolgan urged the parents in Newtown to similarly band together.

“This is a neighborhood elementary school and the parents there hopefully are tight-knit. Once you have the care done, I hope the parents are supportive of one another and work with one another,” Dolgan said. “I hope parents team up and, in time, do get-togethers.”

Dolgan witnessed firsthand how some Columbine families looked initially to condemn and penalize neighboring families and local law enforcement officers for the deaths in their school. The families of more than 30 Columbine victims sued the parents of the two killers, also Columbine students, eventually settling for $2.53 million. The families of 17 Columbine victims also sued the Jefferson County sheriff’s department; one of those victims settled in 2004 for $117,500.

President Obama addressed the nation in an emotionally charged speech Friday, wiping away tears as he expressed sympathy for the families of the victims killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Many of the Columbine families, Dolgan agreed, were likely seeking outlets to vent their anger at the tragic event, and at the murders.

“But who are you going to blame? The first responders? No. (Columbine principal Frank) DeAngelis? No. The school security? No,” Dolgan said. “In time, there was more healing and the parents came together. But initially, no, there were some fractious qualities.”

While heartache and fury may engulf a town after a mass killing, such serial traumas psychologically damage those closest to the suffering on a far deeper level than they do people who were merely in the vicinity, who were, perhaps, close enough to hear the gunfire but not see the deaths, science has found. 

Among 1,000 students who were on campus at Dawson College in Montreal in 2006 when a man shot and wounded 19 people, killing one, about one-third were found to be dealing with some form of mental illness within 18 months of that tragedy, according to a paper published in 2009

“The most common form was clinical depression – which affected 12 percent or 1 in 8. That is about three times higher than would be expected in a normal population,” said Dr. Warren Steiner, head of the department of psychiatry at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, and one of the paper's authors.

“The next highest was substance abuse — drug or alcohol — which affected about 10 percent, people who were self-treating their own anxieties. That’s about three times higher than you would see in the normal population,” Steiner said.

The precise proximity of the survivors to the violence that day directly affected their mental health later, the research team learned. They divided the 1,000 students into four groups based on their “level of exposure.” Those who had witnessed the shootings received the “highest” exposure score, followed by those who only heard gunfire, followed by those who locked themselves into classrooms without knowing if they were next, followed by those who were on campus but unaware of the attacks.

Michelle Mcloughlin / Reuters

The second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history sent crying children spilling into the school parking lot as frightened parents waited for word on their loved ones.

“There was a direct correlation between the level of exposure to the shootings and the development of mental illness. It’s common sense, but it had never been proven before,” Steiner said.

For those who viewed the killings, or who had held a wounded classmate in their arms, post-traumatic stress disorder was the most commonly diagnosed illness, followed by depression and then alcohol dependency. 

But while the mass traumas at Columbine and Dawson College soaked each community in immediate anguish -- and, eventually, imbued those closest to the gunfire with psychological turmoil -- they continue to resonate in the Denver area and in Montreal, the psychologists said.

Memories of each are rekindled after the news of other serial shootings, including the 32 people who were shot and killed at Virginia Tech in 2007, the 13 people who were shot and killed at Fort Hood in 2009, and the 70 moviegoers who were shot — 12 fatally — in Aurora, Colo. on July 20.

“You hear about another one, and there’s the reflex of anxiety,” Steiner said. “I guarantee everyone who was at Dawson will hear the news this evening and they will have flashbacks and disturbing memories, PTSD-like symptoms from what happened to them.

“It goes on for a generation, no doubt about that,” Steiner said.

Dolgan agreed that the shelf-life of a local mass tragedy sticks with a community for several decades, and isn't simply shaken by the passing of time.

“No, no,” Dolgan said. “This is very long-lived.”

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