June 22, 2022 – The temperature came closer to 80 degrees when Mia Treta climbed the steps to the makeshift stage on the bed of a pickup truck parked outside Los Angeles City Hall for the March for Our Lives rally.
She took the audience of 1,000 back in the time after Nov. 14, 2019, when she was a freshman at Saugus High School, northwest of LA, and described her favorite morning ritual.
“Every day I made a beeline for the quad,” she began, explaining that it was the meeting point to see her best friend. “I’m sure we laughed when we heard the first bang.”
Another blow followed, and Tretta was soon on the ground. She was shot. She managed to get up and walk to a classroom, where her teacher was trying to stop the bleeding.
“Moments later, I was sitting in an ambulance, then a helicopter and then an operating room,” she said. “I had a bullet sitting in me, millimeters away from my life ending. But compared to my friend Dominic, I was the lucky one. In a matter of seconds, five people were shot and two were killed. Dominic was one of them.”
Tretta urged listeners to take part in the fight for sensible gun laws, especially the issue of “ghost guns,” privately made weapons without serial numbers. It has been her activist focus since she found out that was the type of weapon that was used by the student gunman to kill the students before he killed himself. By the end of her 8-minute conversation, she had the audience cheering and waving signs, ready to make the march to Grand Park.
The conversation at the rally is not a one-off for Tretta, who is now almost 18. Months after the tragedy, despite the need for surgery and other care, she began volunteering at the hospital where she was receiving treatment, helping distribute “Stop the Bleed” kits, a national campaign to help people quickly to act when tragedy strikes. She is active in Students Demand Action, a basic arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization for the prevention of gun violence. In April, she spoke in the Rose Garden after President Joe Biden announced new regulations to combat ghost guns.
From trauma to action
This year, up to mid-June, at least 278 mass shootings have taken place in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive. And as families of the victims mourn, legions of survivors who have witnessed the massacre first hand also struggle to heal from the trauma. Most will recover well, say mental health experts.
After that, some will continue with what those experts call post-traumatic growth – finding or calling a new goal. That could be a change in careers like education plans, working in a charity that has nothing to do with 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 it, says Robin Gurwitch, PhD, a psychologist and professor at Duke University and an expert on the impact of trauma.
“I think for some survivors, they make sense of what happens to them through activism,” she says. Survivors have told Gurwitch that they “want to give a voice to people whose voices have been heard.” Activism, she believes, is one way to honor those killed by violence.
People often try to find meaning after tragedies such as school shootings, agrees Joshua Morganstein, MD, a psychiatrist in Bethesda, MD, and chairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster. But “that looks different for different people,” he says.
Can activism help recovery?
Whether something is useful is very individual, says Morganstein. Doing work that one defines as activism – such as lobbying for policy change – may not be helpful to some, he says.
Mental health experts want to know what is needed to protect and restore people’s sense of well-being and promote resilience following a disaster or trauma, Morganstein says. This includes:
- A sense of connection, knowing that there are people who will provide support
- A sense of security
- Feel able to achieve things or make changes, both on a personal and community level
- A sense of hope for the future
A sense of helplessness can set in, understandably, with trauma survivors frustrated that they could not stop the disaster or protect themselves, he says.
“When I hear about someone who decides to get involved in activism, such as a march, or seek an audience with a politician to lobby for various changes,” it’s understandable that a person might find that useful, Morganstein says.
What is important for the activist to know, he says, is that the outcome of their efforts is not as important as the activity of speaking out and rising up. It is the act of getting up and speaking out that can help with recovery, he says. As for the feeling of hope, “hope is something we build,” Morganstein says. “You build hope with action.”
Research: The value of taking action
“Trauma can break our sense of control over our lives,” says Erika Felix, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a psychologist. “Being an activist, you realize you can have some control.”
On May 23, 2014, a man who was not affiliated with the university was attacked around the campus. By gunfire and stab wounds, he killed six students and wounded a dozen others before killing himself. Felix interviewed 116 college students about 6 months after the incident to find out how the activities people do after a trauma can affect their post-traumatic growth. She had previously interviewed the students about their adaptation to college life.
After the tragedy, they assessed post-traumatic growth through a standard questionnaire on how or whether they had changed, and then looked at how that growth was affected by five factors following the tragedy: mental health services, information support, grief and memory, coping activities , and take action.
Taking action alone was associated with post-traumatic growth, she found. The results, she says, suggest that campus communities can support student-led activities following a trauma that provide opportunities for action and change. Those activities can include fundraisers, rallies, volunteer work, and other events.
Survivor: Not ‘Why me’, but ‘How about others?’
“As a survivor, you feel a certain obligation to work on this issue, because it is such an important issue,” said John Owens, who was shot by a mentally ill man when he left the offices of his former employer, the NBC affiliate, entered. in Detroit.
Owens, a producer, writer and editor, had stopped by to pick up something he needed for a project he was working on. As he walked in the door, ready to greet the receptionist he knew well, “she moved me back. I did not know why.”
Then he saw another person in the entrance. “As soon as I turned around, he shot me clearly.” That was April 15, 2005. “At first it didn’t seem like much of an injury,” Owens, now 70, recalled recently. But it was. His spinal cord was injured, his lung had collapsed, and he was in great 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 had a constant pain, where you learn to live, because that’s your only option is. ” He learned to walk again but still needs a wheelchair.
His activism was not immediate. On Christmas night, the year he was shot, he spoke at his church. Then he started talking to other congregations – “not so much about gun safety, but sharing the story of recovery” and about guns and mental illness.
In 2015, he retired and moved with his wife to Hendersonville, NC. Now he is the co-lead for the Moms Demand Action chapter in West North Carolina, also affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety. He works with the Everytown Survivor Network.
“We have to work for the people who are incapable … some are unable to do this. Their grief is too great. For those people – that’s why we’re out here.” By reflecting on Treta’s comments, “I consider myself one of the lucky ones,” he says.
Survivors who share their stories are the key to persuading lawmakers to listen, Owens says. “They may not listen to you about policy, but I have never met a legislator who would not listen to your story.”
Eyes on target
Mental health advocates warn activists to burn out – and to keep what Morganstein calls a good work-life balance.
Neither Owens nor Tretta seem inclined to slow down.
“We see this as a problem of social justice,” Owens said of gun law reform. And he knows it will take time. He compares it to the timeline for issues of women’s rights and LGBTQ issues. “Look at all the setbacks that those groups have faced. It takes decades of constant work to achieve what we consider to be justice.” He’s in for the long term.
“I try to use the voice I got because of what happened to get people ready to listen,” Tretta says. “Especially people in power.”