Voices of Youth: Tackling trauma, student mental health, amidst mass shootings rise

Editor's Note: This story was written by Conner McBride, a 2023 graduate of Loy Norrix High School, as part of the Spring 2023 Kalamazoo Voices of Youth Program. The accompanying photos and artwork are by Kimberly Nunez, 13, a 7th grader at Maple Street Magnet School, Joyce Ekumbaki, 13, a 7th grader at Millwood Middle School, and Kayla Ricardo, a 7th grader at Millwood Middle School. The Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program is funded by the Stryker Johnston Foundation. 

Rushing to buy last-minute Valentine’s Day gifts is a tradition shared among many college students, and on the night of Feb. 13, 2023, 19-year-old Danny Asch and his roommate were no different. Unlike other college students, however, their trip to a nearby Target 15 minutes off campus may have kept them out of harm’s way.

Asch is one of the millions of students in the United States who live with the possibility of walking into their school building and not walking out alive. Incidentally for him, that impromptu shopping trip took Asch away from his Michigan State University campus when Anthony McRae, 43, fatally shot three students and critically wounded five others there.

Although he wasn’t on the grounds when the shooting occurred, Asch still bore witness to the effects it had on his peers and other students.

“For the first month, it (the shooting) didn’t really feel real,” he recalls. “We just got two weeks off of classes. It didn’t feel real until everyone was back on campus. No one was looking that happy and everyone was walking faster to classes.”

Artwork by Kimberly Nunez and Joyce Ekumbaki.He continues: “It felt like it wasn’t MSU anymore. It changed how I went about my day. I moved with more purpose going from class to class. I was more vigilant looking for suspicious-looking people and avoided North Neighborhood afterwards.”

Whether students are directly involved or not, school shootings can be traumatic for them and they may require mental health services, according to some experts. 

And it doesn’t help that school shootings are on the rise. It’s forcing school districts and universities to prepare students and staff for the ever-increasing possibility their buildings could be a target of a mass act of violence.

Preparing for the worst

In the first six months of 2023 alone, there have been 185 mass shootings in the U.S., two of which were at schools, one in Nashville, Tennessee, and the other in East Lansing, Michigan. During the 2020-21 school year, there were a total of 93 school shootings, and during the 2021-22 school year, there were 193, almost double the number from the previous year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Artwork by Kimberly Nunez and Joyce Ekumbaki.With the increase in school attacks, schools have begun to implement drills and training for staff and students to practice, such as A.L.I.C.E. (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) program. Attempts to speak with a representative from A.L.I.C.E. for this story were unsuccessful.  

Within this program, teachers are given videos to show to students detailing what they should do if a shooter ever comes on campus. Some of the instructions include tasks like stacking tables and desks in front of the door, or gathering heavy objects to be able to throw at the shooter should one enter the classroom.

Although Asch participated in school-shooter drills in high school, he never gave much thought to them.

“It wasn’t until after the Oxford (High School) shooting, it was like ‘yeah, we need to take these (drills) more seriously,’ ” Asch says. In that shooting, also in Michigan, a student killed four classmates and wounded seven people. It took place on Nov. 30, 2021, in Oxford, Michigan in Oakland County.

While these drills may leave teachers and students better prepared for the worst-case scenario, the drills themselves can also be traumatic for teachers and students alike, says Dr. David Schonfield of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.

Artwork by Kimberly Nunez and Joyce Ekumbaki.He discusses the harm and emotional distress that these high-intensity drills can cause to the mental health of students and staff in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. Schonfield says that sometimes drills are carried out without prior knowledge of the students and sometimes staff, which causes distress.

In 2018, at Short Pump Middle School in Virginia, for instance, school officials held an unannounced active-shooter drill, complete with fire alarms, loud noises, and “unseen people jiggling classroom door handles.” Students were texting goodbyes unaware that it was a drill, and thinking their own lives were in danger, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In a 2019 article published in The Washington Post, a Facebook post by mother Shelley Harrison Reed describes how her daughter's school went into lockdown because of a reported bomb threat.

“It wasn’t until later when Vanessa was changing out of her school uniform that I saw this on her arm…. I say to her, ‘Why did you write that on your arm?’ She says, ‘In case the bad guy got to us and I got killed, you and daddy would know that I love you,’ ” says Harrison Reed in the post.

Lingering trauma

There are three main types of trauma: acute, chronic, or complex, according to Missouri’s Early Care & Education Connections website. Acute trauma is trauma that results from a single event or incident. Chronic trauma is the result of repeated or prolonged events, such as domestic abuse. And complex trauma is caused by exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature.

A study of youth antidepressant use in the aftermath of 44 school shootings between 2006 and 2015 shows that such violence leaves trauma in its wake. 

Artwork by Kimberly Nunez and Joyce Ekumbaki.Usage of antidepressants among youth living close to the shootings went up 21.4% for two years following those events, according to findings published in PNAS, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. 

And a student need not have lived through the shooting directly to be affected.
“Exposure to traumatic events through the media can lead observers to experience anxiety, difficulties in coping, feelings of helplessness, and immense fear,” says clinical psychologist Anjuli Amin in a recent Los Angeles Times article about the secondary trauma some experience from mass shooting coverage.

Marianne Joynt, who works as a psychologist supporting students, families, staff, and communities through mental health initiatives in her role with Portage Public Schools, says addressing these events comes in many forms.

She is currently working within the school system to implement various programming, including support groups for topics like grief, cognitive behavioral therapy, TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students), social-emotional learning, prevention strategies, and conflict resolution.

Multimedia artowrk by Kayla Ricardo“I think we need to talk about mental health as a normal part of our vocabulary every single day,” Joynt says. “It’s important that we are all healthy mentally, just as healthy as our physical health, and we need to take down the barriers that come with specific words.”

Joynt said having a threat assessment process used across her school district has been helpful in that respect, allowing staff to tailor care based on the needs of each student.

“And that's creating a team within the district that can not only be reactive to students struggling but proactive, looking at prevention strategies, like noticing when students are struggling, talking to them, setting up plans to support them, and really looking at assessing the danger before anything happens,” Joynt says.

She says she likes “the thought of having community within your school building, caring about others, watching out for others, and having that same ability and bravery to say, ‘I think there's something wrong and we need to do something about it."

Conner McBride, recent graduate of Loy Norrix High School

Conner McBride is a senior at Loy Norrix High School. She has participated in all four of the Voices of Youth Kalamazoo programs since its launch in Summer 2021. Her interests include reading, music, baking, cooking, shooting photos, hiking, and traveling. She plans to attend Michigan State University in the fall.

Artist Statements:

Kimberly Nunez, 13, 7th Grade at Maple Street Magnet SchoolKimberly Nunez, 7th Grade:
 I chose photography because I thought it would be fun to think of picture ideas and take them. The topic I made art about is mental health on mass shootings. I hope people realize how serious these situations are and the effect it has on everybody in the communities, especially students and teachers. I’m Kimberly, I’m from the Bronx, and I’m Dominican and Guatemalan. #proud :)

Joyce Ekumbaki, 13, 7th Grade at Millwood Middle SchoolJoyce Ekumbaki, 7th Grade: My photos show the negative effect of mass shootings from both teachers’ and students’ perspectives. I chose photography because I think that photography is a great way to show people, and how they feel. I want people to look at my work and understand how students and teachers feel about mass shootings and understand how mass shootings can cause negative mental health. 

Kayla Ricardo, 13, 7th Grade, Millwood Middle SchoolKayla Ricardo, 7th Grade: I made my art project about mental health after a mass shooting. I chose this topic because mass shootings happen too often, but are not talked about. I chose art as my medium because art is my way of showing my feelings. At a young age, mental health is important, and so is my voice.  I hope people just get my message about this topic since it’s not talked about much. Kids’ and adults’ mental health matters, and so do you.

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