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A therapist has advice for how to cope with repeated mass shootings: Lean into family

People hug at a memorial at the entrance to the Covenant School on Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn.
Wade Payne
/
AP
People hug at a memorial at the entrance to the Covenant School on Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn.

Updated March 30, 2023 at 12:20 PM ET

Monday's tragedy in Nashville was the 130th mass shooting this year, according to a tracker from the Gun Violence Archive. That means there have been more such incidents than days in 2023, just three months into the year.

In fact, mass shootings have become so common that some people have lived through more than one.

One of them, Ashbey Beasley, made headlines this week when she crashed a press conference about the Covenant School shooting to make the case for stronger gun laws.

Beasley is from Highland Park, Ill., where a shooter killed seven people and injured dozens of others during a Fourth of July parade last year. She and her now 7-year-old son were at that parade, an experience that spurred her involvement in gun safety advocacy.

Beasley had stopped to visit family in Nashville on her way back from Washington, D.C., where she took part in a rally urging Congress to pass a federal assault weapons ban over the weekend, member station WBEZ reports.

On Monday she was planning to have lunch with her friend Shaundelle Brooks, whose son was killed in a mass shooting at a Nashville Waffle House in 2018. But Brooks called her first in a panic, saying her other son's school had gone into lockdown because of the shooting nearby.

Beasley rushed to the area to check on Brooks and her son, and from there made her way to the scene of the shooting to see if she could help — and ended up making an impromptu speech to reporters, which has since gone viral.

"Because only in America can you survive a mass shooting and go and make a friend who is the victim of a mass shooting and then go to meet that friend for lunch ... and end up in the middle of another mass shooting event," she later told The Washington Post.

What it's like living through multiple school shootings

Some students have spoken out about surviving multiple shootings at different schools.

In February, a gunman fatally shot three students and injured five others on the campus of Michigan State University (MSU).

Among those sheltering in place was Jackie Matthews, a college senior who had been a sixth-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School at the time of the 2012 shooting.

She had crouched in the corner of her classroom for so long that she got a PTSD fracture in two vertebrae in her lower back, which still flares up in times of stress, she said in a TikTok video filmed across the street from where some of the MSU shootings happened.

"The fact that this is the second mass shooting that I have now lived through is incomprehensible," said Matthews, 21.

There were also nearly two dozen students at MSU who had recently graduated from Michigan's Oxford High School, where a gunman killed four students in Nov. 2021.

Just over a year later, freshman Emma Riddle found herself locked down in her dorm room after getting an alert about an active shooter on her college campus.

"Fourteen months ago I had to evacuate from Oxford High [School] when a fifteen year old opened fire and killed four of my classmates and injured seven more," she tweeted. "Tonight, I am sitting under my desk at Michigan State [University], once again texting everyone 'I love you.' When will this end?"

The tragedies are stressful even from afar

Living through a mass shooting can be traumatic. And going through that experience multiple times can cause chronic stress, says Michael Davidovits, a family therapist and the assistant director of the Project for Adolescents and their Families at New York's Ackerman Institute.

"The old fight and flight responses that we all learned about in Psych 101 ... work well if there is a problem that you can solve by either running away from it or attacking it," he tells Morning Edition's A Martínez. "But when it comes to repeated stress and problems that just continue to exist in our environment, they don't work, and we're just left with the behaviors, which themselves cause more stress."

When it comes to kids and families, Davidovits says he's seeing problems on both ends of the spectrum, from increasing aggression and bullying in school to increasing social withdrawal and depression.

"When you're in that state of stress and alarm and vigilance, you're looking for danger," he adds. "You're not looking for connection, you're not looking for the sustenance that comes from being with other people."

Mass shootings impact society as a whole, even if people aren't experiencing them firsthand, he says.

Part of that is "it's always on the landscape," with most school districts holding regular lockdown drills and many getting threatening calls. Davidovits says that creates an environment of fear — especially of each other. Davidovits says that creates an environment of fear — especially of each other.

"We're looking for what's wrong and what this person might be up to, might be possibly doing to us, rather than looking for opportunities to join with people, to have connection," he adds. "The more disconnected we feel from each other affects us in society, affects families."

Family and community connections matter

Davidovits says if there's one place where people will feel safe, it's in their connections to the people they love and who matter to them the most.

That's why he's especially distressed to see "patterns of disconnection" in families where kids are isolating themselves while parents are struggling to both help them and manage their own stress.

So what's the best way to cope? Much expert advice has been offered about everything from how to talk to kids about bad news to navigating secondary trauma.

Davidovits encourages people to attend to their communities. He tells parents to model that behavior for their kids, like smiling at a stranger on the elevator.

"Most people return a smile with a smile," he says. "And I know that seems like a sort of almost trite and small thing, but there's been a lot of research that's been done now on how that alleviates anxiety, to experience strangers as beneficent rather than malevolent."

He also emphasizes the importance of strengthening relationships.

While deeper connections to family members and loved ones don't necessarily solve the problem, he says, they do provide the sense of safety that people are craving so much.

The audio for this story was produced by Mansee Khurana and edited by Adam Bearne.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.