Run. Hide. Fight. Reflect: The effects of trauma after tragedy

Photo by Katie Chin

It was an ordinary Monday afternoon for Cindy Shiu: Her finance class was canceled, and she was ready to start on homework on the fourth floor of Fertitta Hall. Leaving the restroom, she opened the door to a group of policemen in bulletproof vests, holding guns pointed in all directions.

“A shot of adrenaline I’ve never felt before rushed through my body,” Shiu said. “I bolted down those four flights of stairs.”

Less than one day after the Las Vegas massacre, an adjunct professor in the Marshall School of Business started her 12 p.m. class. Students in the class say she was visibly distraught and was talking about friends who were the city when the shooting took place, leaving 58 dead and 489 injured. Five minutes into class, she falsely claimed there was an active shooter on campus and left the classroom.

Minutes later, public safety officers and police arrived on the scene, ordering students to evacuate. Hundreds of students fled Fertitta Hall, seeking shelter in nearby buildings. Shiu, a junior majoring in business administration, was one of them.

In the aftermath of any episode of mass violence, terrorist attack or natural disaster, individuals touched directly or indirectly are at a higher risk of displaying traumatic stress reactions, according to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to the center, traumatic stress reactions manifest in four main categories: emotional, cognitive, physical and interpersonal effects.

“Most of these issues occur across a developmental spectrum, they just present themselves differently,” said David Schonfeld, a professor of practice, social work and pediatrics at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Some symptoms include shock, terror, irritability, blame, anger, guilt, grief, emotional numbing, sleep disorders and helplessness, he said. Individuals may display one, many or none of these symptoms.

“Sometimes you don’t see the signs,” Schonfeld said. “Sometimes it’s just based [on] experience and exposure, especially if you’re talking about internal states. The person feels it though.”

From a student perspective, Shiu believes the University could have responded to the false reports more quickly with available USC mental health resources and given students extra time to process the stressful situation last Monday.

“I felt like they should have clearly emphasized mental health services for students and have every professor mention [the false report] briefly,” Shiu said. “I know students who carried on with their midterms at 2 p.m., and that’s not OK.”

Provost Michael Quick issued a statement around 4 p.m. the Monday of the incident, three hours after the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed there was no active shooter. Immediately after the lockdown was lifted, classes resumed as scheduled, unless a professor decided otherwise.

A specialist in pediatric bereavement and crisis and the director for the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, Schonfeld and his team work with schools across the country to educate and support those experiencing trauma. In educational institutions, a common symptom following a traumatic event is lack of focus and unproductiveness among students, faculty and staff.

“Kids have trouble learning in school, teachers have trouble concentrating and teaching,” Schonfeld said. “This leads to deterioration in academic and work performance.”

Damon Clark, a trauma surgeon at Keck Hospital of USC, noted that the healing process for trauma patients is long. It also requires a multidisciplinary team of professionals working together to mentally and physically heal those affected.

“There’s pain associated to whatever extent their injuries are plus surgical procedures required to treat that injury,” Clark said. “When we have a typical trauma patient from a violent act, we get social work, counselors fairly involved because a lot of them deal with the pain, anxiety, depression.”

Clark believes that the mental aspect is often overlooked in the public.

“In terms of some of the research we do in interpersonal violence, it takes time and a lot of effort to heal from wounds,” Clark said. “But I think one of the major aspects that people forget is the emotional state that people go through. People don’t forget going through that kind of event.”

After evaluations, Clark and his team work with social workers and police to identify next of kin and support those close to the victims. He also continues to brief relatives and close friends of the patient’s status.

“The key thing when you’re dealing with this is to have conversations about the patient’s physical and emotional health as often as possible,” Clark said. “You need to be honest about how they’re doing and describe as much of the process as you can.”

To support fellow Trojans experiencing distress after a major event, Schonfeld recommends friends and classmates to reach out and cheer them up. Though people may feel worried of upsetting someone further, he believes it helps the individual be more open.

“They can withdraw and feel alienated,” Schonfeld said. “The problem is a lot of the time people don’t know what to say and they figure, ‘If I ask about it, it’s going to upset them.’ You’re not upsetting them, you’re just inviting them to share their feelings, so that hopefully you can support them.”

Doctors, social workers and other medical professionals in the USC community are also available.

“We don’t think you can live your life worrying about an incident that may or may not happen, but if there is, we’re here for the community,” Clark said. “We’ll support you physically, emotionally and psychologically — whatever is needed.”