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Study examines mental health impact of campus gun-related incidents


This article is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.

UNC junior Mary McKenzie said she rarely sits on the first floor of the Student Union. That’s where she was during the Sept. 13 lockdown after a person threatened an Alpine Bagel Cafe employee with a gun.

“When I see something out of the ordinary, my first thought always goes to, ‘Something's going on again,’” she said. “And then I'm waiting for an alarm or an alert.”

Joe Friedman, a clinical psychology graduate student, is researching the long-term effects on campus mental health from the two incidents of gun violence early in the fall semester. 

The ongoing research study will track the survey responses of students, faculty and staff throughout the academic year, following the shooting on Aug. 28 and the Sept. 13 lockdown.

Of the five scheduled surveys, the first was sent out six weeks after Aug. 28 and received 287 responses, Friedman said. Although the number of responses dropped in the following surveys, he said survey respondents were largely sourced through email listservs. The last survey will be sent out in March.

“The purpose of the study is for us to learn why certain people are having a more challenging time coping with stressful or traumatic events such as this, and also how we can better help people who have been most affected during this,” Friedman said

Friedman said the first survey found that one in five respondents reported clinically significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress. That number jumped to one in four among students. 

“We're seeing that students are reporting more severe symptoms than faculty and staff,” Friedman said. “And we're also seeing that individuals who identify as a racial or ethnic minority are reporting more severe post-traumatic stress symptoms on average.” 

He also said the surveys showed a significantly higher level of post-traumatic stress symptoms among individuals who were close to Alpine and the Union during the second lockdown but did not show a significant difference based on proximity to Caudill Labs on Aug. 28. 

Friedman said there is potential for bias in the sample because people who felt more mental health repercussions from the events may have been more likely to elect to complete the survey. 

Jonathan Abramowitz, Friedman’s research mentor and director of clinical training in the psychology and neuroscience department, said when a group of people experiences a traumatic event, the majority tend to recover on their own, but there are always some individuals who continue to have difficulties. 

Abramowitz said anxiety presents in three ways: physically in the form of muscle tension and headaches, mentally through symptoms such as racing thoughts and difficulty concentrating and behaviorally through avoidance and taking extra precautions. He said post-traumatic stress is a subset of anxiety and can include additional symptoms such as an exaggerated startle response and loss of interest in activities. 

One undergraduate student who wished to remain anonymous said she struggled with increased anxiety after being in the Union during the second lockdown. She also said she had a difficult time prioritizing her mental health while completing classwork after the incidents. 

“As soon as we were back, we still had the same amount of material to cover but you had less time to cover it,” she said. “That has always been the question — were those mental health days really worth it?”

Friedman said two-thirds of the sample reported not seeking any kind of support or psychological services in response to what happened.

“From Aug. 29-Sept. 1, 2023, CAPS provided walk-in services to 192 students,” UNC Media Relations said in an email statement. “During that same time frame in 2022, CAPS provided walk-in services to 87 students.”

Media Relations said they were unable to attribute a reason to the visits.

Although memories of the incidents last fall no longer impact her every day, McKenzie said there are still one or two times a week when something out of place, like someone yelling or running, makes her feel tense. 

Friedman said the research is a reminder that it is very common to still be affected by a traumatic event, even months later. He said he encourages people to seek support from friends and family, as well as trained mental health professionals. 

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“If you are struggling with this, just realize that you're not alone,” Friedman said. “Even though the lockdown happened in the past, your current emotions about it are real and valid and not something you should feel ashamed about.”

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