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Healing After One Mass Shooting Is Hard Enough. How Do You Recover From Two?

Gun violence in America is so bad that victims are suffering from multiple mass shootings.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Flowers and crosses are set at the base of "The Rock" statue on the campus of Michigan State University as a tribute to the students killed and wounded in the shooting on February 16.

As she was barricading the door to her dorm room at Michigan State University, Emma Riddle had an overwhelming sense of déjà vu: She had lived through a school shooting before.

Just 14 months prior, Emma was a senior at Oxford High School, about 55 miles north of the MSU campus, when another student opened fire, killing four people and wounding seven others. And now she has to try to heal all over again.

“When you go through it the first time, you’re kind of thinking, ‘Oh, this is never going to happen again, you only have to do this once,’” the now-freshman at MSU told The New Republic. “So it’s definitely surreal having to go through it again.”

She had been in the shower when her roommate knocked on the door and told her a gunman was on campus. Riddle said that instincts began to kick in as the two locked and barricaded the door, turned off the lights, and hid.

In the week since, the 18-year-old said there are “things that I haven’t dealt with in a while that I’m dealing with now.”

She’s not the only one. There are so many school shootings in the United States that many students are living through multiple ones. In 2023 alone, there have already been 84 mass shootings, more than there have been days in the year. Seventeen have occurred since Michigan State.

In the immediate aftermath of the MSU shooting, TikTok user Jackie Matthews shared a video that quickly went viral, explaining she had survived the Sandy Hook shooting only to have to live through another on her college campus.

Riddle estimates there are at least 50 other Oxford alums in her year at MSU alone, all of whom are just trying to push through. And that’s not including the many other alums and current Oxford students who survived the high school attack and weren’t on the university campus when the shooting happened but still feel the repercussions.

Gun violence takes a huge negative toll on mental health, particularly for young people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that communities exposed to school shootings saw increased youth antidepressant use and even suicide risk.

The violence can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, increased anxiety, and challenges at school such as trouble concentrating. There has been limited research on how mass shootings affect people who were not directly involved, but KFF noted that even knowing about such attacks could be linked to increased levels of fear and anxiety.

Riddle told TNR that “all the healing that you do from Oxford kind of gets unraveled. You kind of get thrown back.”

“When you go from a place where your sense of safety is destroyed like in Oxford, it’s definitely a process to find a new sense of safety within a new environment. I feel like that sense of safety was just starting to be developed at MSU, so it’s definitely been shaken up,” she said.

After the Oxford shooting, Riddle’s reactions to things such as loud noises were heightened. That jumpiness has come back since the shooting at MSU. Her second semester classes started Monday, but it’s been hard for her to feel motivated.

Sarah Johnson, a pediatrics professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who has studied how chronic stress affects child development and behavior, told The New York Times that exposure to gun violence can give people a sense that the world isn’t safe and that “they are powerless to change the circumstances in which they’re living.”

People can also develop a sense of detachment from the tragedy, called psychic numbing. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who studies psychic numbing, told the Times that maintaining a sense of engagement in what’s happening can actually help overcome the trauma.

He suggested focusing on the victims, instead of always looking at the existential issue, and working towards a solution, particularly with other people who care deeply about making change.

Dylan Morris, who also lived through the Oxford shooting, has been trying to do just that.

It took Morris, now a senior at Oxford High, a long time to find a sense of normalcy again. He said he often felt foggy or would disassociate due to his trauma. When he learned there was an active shooter at MSU the night of February 13, “I felt like I had been set back in my healing process,” he told TNR.

“Any time there is another mass shooting, all the survivors of the other mass shootings have to relive their trauma,” he said. “So I can only imagine these students who went from Oxford, who survived that mass shooting there, reeling from the impact of that, trying to heal, and also going to MSU and surviving the same thing. So it restarted their whole grieving process.”

But for Morris, 18, “one of the ways I’ve been coping with that is advocacy work. It’s been really empowering for me to turn that frustration … into action.”

He had already gotten involved in activism after the Oxford shooting, when he co-founded a group called No Future Without Today, which advocates for gun control reform, mental health care reform, and youth involvement in the issue.

In the more than a week since the MSU shooting, he and the rest of the group have attended and spoken at events for gun control and shared information on social media about how to get involved.

Michigan just unveiled a sweeping package of 11 gun control laws, and the group has been pushing for the legislation to get hearings and votes.

The bills include measures such as secure storage for firearms and ammunition to be stored securely, as well as universal background checks for gun purchases. They would also create a red flag law, which would allow courts to temporarily seize weapons from anyone considered a danger to themselves or others.

No Future Without Today is working with a state senator, Rosemary Bayer, to try and drum up bipartisan support for the package. Governor Gretchen Whitmer had called in her State of the State address in late January for the state legislature to pass “common-sense” gun reform laws. The bills had been in the works for weeks before the shooting, but Democrats are trying to capitalize on the momentum created by the attack.

Morris noted that MSU students mobilized for Democratic candidates during the 2022 midterm elections, so he hopes that the newly elected majority can make good on that opportunity.

Back on MSU’s campus, Riddle says that instinct has also taken over the healing process.

“I just know it will get better because, obviously, this is the second time I’ve had to do it,” she said.

She has been checking in with other survivors and seeing how they can support each other as they grieve and heal.

“It is kind of heartbreaking that I know how to deal with my emotions in this kind of situation, but also it’s been really helpful because I know that getting up and getting ready, and doing my makeup and my hair and stuff, and putting on an outfit will help me be more organized and prepared to go through the day compared to just sitting in bed,” she said.

“So that kind of stuff does help me keep on going.”