The Long-Term Psychological Impact of School Shootings

As school shootings increase, researchers are looking into devastating long-term effects that include PTSD.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
May 26, 2022 8:30 PM
(Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock)


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Research has found that survivors of school shootings need years to heal, and their recovery can cost them education and employment opportunities.

The May 24 massacre of 19 fourth-graders and two adults at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, is the latest in an uptick of school shootings since December 2012, when a gunman stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and opened fire. After 12 terrifying minutes, 20 first graders and six adults had died.

The following year, a commentary in Disaster Health described school shootings as a “rare and extreme event.” The authors noted that although firearm deaths in the U.S. were common, school shootings were “sporadic and few.”

But almost a decade later, mass shootings, which happen at one or more locations and involve four or more victims, occur every day in the U.S. There have been more than 200 mass shootings since the start of the year.

Lingering Trauma

Students who witness or are on campus during a school shooting are at greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, researchers have found.

In a 2010 study in European Psychiatry, researchers connected with Finnish adolescents four months after another student at their school shot six students, the school nurse and the principal before fatally shooting himself. Survivors hid for hours until the campus was secure. Some reported seeing the gunman move between buildings as he sought out his targets.

The researchers mailed questionnaires to all 474 students at their homes. Of the students, 55 percent responded and answered questions about their exposure to the attack, as well as background information about their family living situation, health and academic performance. Researchers analyzed the responses and compared them to a control group of similar adolescents who had not experienced a school shooting.

The study found that half of students exposed to the school shooting experienced PTSD. Since some students might have been across campus but knew the attack was in progress, and others may have been closer to the attack, their level of exposure varied. Not surprisingly, greater exposure to the violence on the day of the incident meant stronger distress in the following months. Older students were more affected than younger ones.

Three years later, a different group of researchers interviewed students who survived an attack on their summer camp in Utøya Island, Norway, which killed 69 people and injured 58 others. Survivors were trapped on the island for hours after witnessing the violent massacre.

Researchers connected with 325 survivors (66 percent response rate) about five months after the attack. They found the survivors had post-traumatic stress levels about six times higher than others their age. The authors concluded the survivors were exposed to danger and loss and were enduring long-term strain.

Long-Term Pain

Students who survive a school shooting have daily struggles and are significantly more likely to need antidepressants two years after the incident. One study found antidepressant prescriptions increased by 21.4 percent in 44 school districts in Texas that had experienced a fatal shooting between 2006-2015.

The ongoing emotional turmoil impacts students' ability to attend school and plan for the future. In May 2022, the National Bureau of Economic Research released an updated paper that looked at student performance following 33 school shootings in Texas between 1995 and 2016. Like the other studies, researchers used control groups when analyzing how survivors of school shootings attended school, maintained grades and continued their post-secondary education.

School shootings immediately impacted attendance and grades. The paper found school shootings predicted a 27.8 percent increase in the likelihood that a student would be chronically absent, and a 124.5 percent increase in the likelihood of having to repeat a grade.

Poor academic performance negatively impacted education and employment prospects for survivors, and the study’s authors say this has a lifetime consequence. Students who were sophomores or juniors at the time of an attack were 15.3 percent less likely to have a bachelor’s degree by age 26 than the control group.

Students who were a freshman, sophomore or junior at the time of the shooting made about 13 percent less income on average by age 26 than students who did not endure a school shooting. The authors concluded that being a school shooting survivor meant a person would earn $115,500 less on average in their lifetime than those who never had a gunman storm onto their campus.

Studying School Violence

Schools in the U.S. have experienced violence since colonial times. Many of these instances involved students avenging a teacher for past physical discipline. In Massachusetts, for example, student violence and riots shuttered in over 400 schoolhouses in the early 1800s.

By 1900, more than half of U.S. states had mandated schooling up to a certain age. But disruptions continued, and one scholar referred to it as an “uneasy” time as students picketed, damaged buildings and burned school books in response to mistreatment.

In the late 1920s, a school bombing in Bath Township, Mich. introduced a new era of students, including young children, becoming the target of violence. In 1927, a vengeful school board member used his building access to wire bombs throughout the school. He ignited the explosives on a May morning and killed 38 children and six adults. Another 58 people were injured.

There have been other school bombings, but gun violence is now a bigger threat. Since 1970, there have been more than 2,050 shootings at a school campus or on a school bus at about 1,900 different schools. These shootings have killed 681 people and injured 1,908.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office categorizes shootings as accidents, drive-bys, escalations of disputes, suicides and revenge against a peer or school administration. The media commonly covers the those shootings classed as "indiscriminate," where the shooter fires at random people and seeks to kill as many victims as possible. The massacre at Robb Elementary School was an indiscriminate shooting.

Each event can affect thousands of other students at the same school or district, and social scientists continue to learn more about the suffering that students endure in the months and years after the shooting.

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