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“We were the lucky ones”

June 22, 2022 – The temperature approached 80 degrees as Mia Tretta climbed the steps of the makeshift stage onto the bed of a van parked outside Los Angeles City Hall for the March for Our Lives rally.

She took the crowd of 1,000 back in time to Nov. 14, 2019, when she was a freshman at Saugus High School in northwest Los Angeles, and described her beloved morning ritual.

“Every day I headed straight for the quad,” she began, explaining that it was the meeting point to see her best friend. “I’m pretty sure we were laughing when we heard the first shot.”

Another hit followed, and Tretta was down quickly. She had been shot. She managed to get up and run to a classroom, where her teacher tried to stop the bleeding.

“Moments later I was in an ambulance, then a helicopter, then an operating room,” she said. “I had a bullet lodged inside me, millimeters away from ending my life. But compared to my friend Dominic, I was the luckiest. Within seconds, five people were shot and two were killed. were killed, Dominique was one of them.

Tretta urged listeners to join the fight for sensible gun laws, particularly the issue of “ghost guns,” privately made guns without serial numbers. It’s been her goal as an activist ever since she discovered it was the type of weapon used by the student shooter to kill students before committing suicide. At the end of her 8-minute speech, she had the crowd cheering and holding signs, ready to march to Grand Park.

The conversation at the rally isn’t unique to Tretta, who is now almost 18. Months after the tragedy, despite needing surgery and other care, she began volunteering at the hospital where she received treatment, helping to distribute ‘Stop the Bleed’, a national campaign to help people act quickly when tragedy strikes. She is active in Students Demand Action, a local branch of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization. In April, she spoke at the Rose Garden after that President Joe Biden announced new regulations to crack down on ghost weapons.

From trauma to action

This year, through mid-June, at least 278 mass shootings have taken place in the United States, according to Gun Violence Archive. And as the families of the victims mourn, legions of survivors who witnessed the carnage are also struggling to heal from the trauma. Most will recover well, say mental health experts.

After that, some will continue to have what these experts call post-traumatic growth – finding a new purpose or calling. This could be a change in career or education plans, working at a charity unrelated to gun violence, or fighting for reform of gun laws.

After these violent, life-altering events, survivors often say they want to find or make sense of them, says Robin Gurwitch, PhD, psychologist and professor at Duke University and an expert on the impact of trauma. .

“I think for some survivors, they make sense of what’s happening to them through activism,” she says. The survivors told Gurwitch that they wanted to “give a voice to those whose voices have been taken away.” Activism, she finds, is a way to honor those who have been killed by violence.

People often try to find meaning after tragedies like school shootings, agrees Joshua Morganstein, MD, a psychiatrist at Bethesda, MD, and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s committee on the psychiatric dimensions of disasters. But “it feels different to different people,” he says.

Can activism help recovery?

Whether something is useful is very individual, says Morganstein. Doing work that one defines as activism — like lobbying for policy change — may not be helpful for some, he says.

Mental health experts know what is needed to protect and restore people’s sense of well-being and foster resilience after disaster or trauma, Morganstein says. This includes:

  • A sense of connectedness, knowing that there are people who will provide support
  • A sense of security
  • Feeling capable of accomplishing things or making changes, both on a personal and community level
  • A sense of hope for the future

A sense of helplessness can set in, naturally, with trauma survivors frustrated at not being able to stop the disaster or not being able to protect themselves, he says.

“When I hear of someone deciding to engage in activism, like a march, or seeking an audience with a politician to push for various changes,” it’s understandable that a person might find it helps, says Morganstein.

What is important for the activist to know, he says, is that the outcome of their efforts does not matter as much as the activity of speaking out and standing up. It’s the act of standing up and speaking out that can help healing, he says. As for the meaning of hope, “hope is something we build,” says Morganstein. “You build hope with action.”

Research: the value of action

“Trauma can shatter our sense of control over our lives,” says Erika Felix, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a psychologist. “Becoming an activist makes you realize that you can have some control.”

On May 23, 2014, a man unaffiliated with the university attacked around campus. By shooting and stabbing, he murdered six students and injured a dozen others before committing suicide. Felix surveyed 116 university students about 6 months after the incident to find out how the activities people do after trauma might affect their posttraumatic growth. She had previously asked students about their adjustment to university life.

After the tragedy, she assessed posttraumatic growth through a standard questionnaire about how or if they had changed, then examined how that growth was affected by five factors after the tragedy: mental health services, informational support, bereavement and remembrance, coping activities and Take part.

Only acting was associated with posttraumatic growth, she found. The findings, she says, suggest that campus communities could support student-led activities after trauma that provide opportunities to take action and create change. These activities may include fundraisers, rallies, volunteering and other events.

Survivor: Not “Why me”, but “And the others? »

“As a survivor you feel a certain obligation to work on this issue because it’s such an important issue,” says John Owens, who was shot by a mental patient as he walked into his office. former employer, the NBC affiliate. in Detroit.

Owens, producer, writer and editor, had stopped by to grab something he needed for a project he was working on. As he walked through the door, preparing to greet the receptionist he knew well, “she waved me back. I did not know why.

Then he saw another person in the hallway. “As soon as I turned around, he shot me at close range.” It was April 15, 2005. “At first it didn’t really feel like an injury,” recalls Owens, now 70. But it was. His spinal cord was injured, his lung had collapsed, and he was in severe pain.

“Within 15 minutes I was in the best trauma center in town. They saved my life but also changed my life forever. I’ve been in constant pain, which you learn to live with because it’s your only option. He learned to walk again but still needs a wheelchair.

His activism was not immediate. On Christmas Eve, the year he was shot, he spoke at his church. Then he started speaking to other congregations — “not so much about gun safety, but sharing the story of healing” and about guns and mental illness.

In 2015 he retired and moved with his wife to Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is now co-lead of the Moms Demand Action chapter in western North Carolina, also affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety. He works with the Everytown Survivor Network.

“We have to work for people who are not able… some are not able to do that. Their grief is too great. For these people, this is why we are here. Echoing Tretta’s comments, “I consider myself one of the lucky ones,” he said.

Survivors sharing their stories are key to persuading lawmakers to listen, Owens says. “They may not listen to you on politics, but I’ve never met a lawmaker who wouldn’t listen to your story.”

Eyes on the goal

Mental health advocates warn campaigners against burnout — and to maintain what Morganstein calls a good work-life balance.

Neither Owens nor Tretta seem inclined to slow down.

“We see this as a matter of social justice,” Owens said of gun law reform. And he knows it will take time. He compares it to the timeline of women’s rights issues and LGBTQ issues. “Look at all the setbacks these groups have faced. It takes decades of constant work to achieve what we consider to be justice. He left for the long haul.

“I try to use the voice that was given to me because of what happened to make people more willing to listen,” says Tretta. “Especially the people in power.”

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