Interviewing survivors after a mass shooting can actually be really damaging

The horrible mass shooting that occurred at a Parkland, Florida high school on Wednesday is still fresh in our minds. The shooting left 17 dead and has become one of the deadliest mass shootings in United States history.

After a tragedy like this, it’s only natural to have a ton of questions. Like what really happened during the shooting? Unfortunately, though, our need for answers may be harming the mental well-being of mass shooting survivors.

After every tragedy, reporters flock to the scene to do their job and find out what happened, and that often includes speaking to those who survived the tragedy. But reliving the trauma so soon after it’s occurred can cause major long-term negative health effects.

Yesterday, soon after the tragic Florida school shooting, HuffPost reporter Anna Almendrala posted a series of tweets reflecting on the practice of the post-tragedy interview.

Almendrala explained that, in the ’80s, experts thought that interviewing a survivor immediately after a trauma could actually help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. But later research has revealed that the opposite is true.

She wrote,

"Researchers found that not only did these interviews NOT prevent PTSD and other conditions, but it actually strengthened memories of trauma and made psychological symptoms worse. In other words, these interviews prevented survivors from forgetting — a crucial part of mental recovery after a trauma."

“Survivors of the shooting are undergoing post-traumatic stress at this juncture, and the media barging in on them suddenly, asking them all these questions about their friends and teachers, especially so soon after such a horrific event, does little to help their case,” Dr. Kathryn Smerling, family therapist, tells HelloGiggles.

Interviewing survivors right after a trauma can actually further exacerbate PTSD, she says. And in the case of school shootings, most survivors are young people who process trauma much differently than adults. They’re more at risk for mental health repercussions during these times.

“Following this tragedy, survivors are experiencing a wide array of difficult emotions and are dealing with layers of shame, survivor’s guilt, and unimaginable grief,” Smerling says. “Talking to strangers and being put on the spot like that, especially in front of a camera, while they’re working on their own recovery and healing, will only increase their feelings of trauma.”

While there are journalists who are trained in sensitivity and try to approach these situations mindfully, Smerling believes the post-tragedy interview is still something that should be avoided in order to “let the healing process unfold correctly.”

After a tragic event occurs, we typically respond the same way. We send out “thoughts and prayers” and look for answers. But as turns out, neither of these are actually that helpful.

“I know we all have a job to do, and that is to report the news,” Almendrala concluded. “All I’m asking is … [for you to] weigh survivors’ mental well-being against the drama of a compelling story, especially on the day of the shooting.”