At Michigan State University, some students experienced their 2nd school shooting: 'It's not OK'

Seen with their backs to the camera against a bronze statue, students and families link arms and bow their heads.
Survivors of more than one mass shooting speak out in the wake of the Michigan State University tragedy. (Photo: Getty Images)

For 21-year-old Michigan State University student Jackie Matthews, the Feb. 13 shooting — which claimed the lives of three students and injured five others — meant reliving trauma. In Dec. 2012, Matthews was a middle school student in the Newtown, Conn., school district when 26 people were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As Matthews detailed in a TikTok posted earlier this week, she hid in a classroom hunched alongside her classmates for so long that she suffered a fracture in her lower back.

“The fact that this is the second mass shooting that I have now lived through is incomprehensible,” she told the camera in her video, which has since been removed from the platform. "My heart goes out to all the families and friends of the victims ... but we can no longer just provide love and prayers. There needs to be legislation; there needs to be action. It's not OK. We can no longer allow this to happen. We can no longer be complacent."

MSU student Emma Riddle told The Washington Post that she survived the 2021 school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, only to experience a shooting again in college. She tweeted, “'14 months ago I had to evacuate from Oxford High Schol [sic] when a fifteen year old opened fire and killed four of my classmates and injured seven more. Tonight, I am sitting under my desk at Michigan State Univeristy [sic], once again texting everyone ‘I love you’

"When will this end?”

She’s not the only one from Oxford enrolled at MSU: her mother, Andrea Ferguson, told WDIV-TV in Detroit how her daughter also survived the Oxford shooting, only to have to shelter in place at MSU, where she is now a student.

“This isn’t what we send our kids to school for,” Ferguson said. “This shouldn’t be happening.”

According to The Washington Post’s database, there have been 366 school shootings since 1999’s shooting at Columbine High School. More than 338,000 students have experienced gun violence at school, per the database, although that number does not include students in other schools in the district, which may have also been told, like Matthews, to shelter in place or hide — not knowing what may come next.

PTSD and mass shootings

Surviving a shooting without physical injury does not mean that survivors go unscathed. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health disorder triggered by a terrifying event, was once typically associated almost exclusively with war veterans — but it is common following shootings. Symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic, include nightmares and severe anxiety. For people who experience more than one mass shooting, the risk of developing the disorder is much greater.

Dr. Shaili Jain, a psychiatrist and a PTSD specialist who wrote The Unspeakable Mind, says that while most people's emotional wounds heal with the passage of time, a “substantial minority” will go on to develop PTSD. The “dose of your trauma exposure matters” when it comes to the risk of developing PTSD, she say, — which means that for people who did not develop PTSD after the first traumatic event they experienced, the risk increases with their second.

Mass shootings, in general, may be more likely to cause PTSD than other types of traumatic events.

“There's something about human-made violence, which is potently traumatizing and much more likely to lead to PTSD than let's say, a natural disaster or an accident,” Jain explains. “It’s the way we're wired as humans. When we feel like someone deliberately went out of their way to harm us — there's something about that that's potently traumatizing.”

Jain points out that every person responds to a traumatic event in a different way. For people who lived through a shooting shortly after surviving their first, they may not have properly coped with the first event, compounding the trauma. However, she notes that even for people who survived a mass shooting as a child, the trauma can be stirred up.

“When you're a child, especially when you're a very young child, your brain may not be able to fully process what is going on, and you will be vulnerable throughout your lifetime to having things retriggered and manifest in unsuspecting ways,” she explains. “I really wouldn't be surprised if this person was having a massive re-experiencing of what went on as a child. It doesn't matter that it was 15 years ago. I don't think that really matters. The nature of the trauma was just so horrific and so life-changing, that it totally has the power to destabilize.”

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