Although Lisa Hamp wasn't shot during the 2007 Virginia Tech active shooter attack, she was still traumatized. Recovery is both physical and mental.
On the morning of April 16, 2007, I laid on the floor as a gunman tried to enter my computer science class at Virginia Tech. Eight years later, I sought counseling for an eating disorder.
During my first counseling session, I said “This is not related to the shooting. I want to own this eating disorder, and I want to fix it.” My counselor likely thought to herself, “Alright honey, we’ll get there.” Only a couple months later, I found myself sobbing in her office. For the first time, I was allowing years of bottled-up fear, loneliness, guilt and anxiety to be released.I had finally begun the process of dealing with the Virginia Tech tragedy.
After the shooting, I internally struggled to return to a normal life. So what did I do? I acted like I was just fine. I got a job working for the federal government, got a master’s degree, ran a marathon, got engaged, got married, ran more marathons, got a second master’s degree, bought a house… the list of goes on. I appeared happy and successful to family and friends, and even convinced myself that I was.
I needed help but I didn’t realize it. I didn’t want to be still because being still was uncomfortable. So I kept moving. I kept doing things. I made myself as busy as possible to avoid feeling my emotions.
My mind felt like a confused, scrambled mess. I constantly compared myself to the physically injured survivors. They had to cope with physical injury while I walked out of the building unharmed. Because of this, I thought I was undeserving of being recognized as a “survivor,” that I lucked out, and that I needed to be quiet and make myself small.
Fortunately, counseling helped me make sense of my feelings. There was a mismatch between how I was feeling inside — anxious, vulnerable, scared, and lonely — and other people’s comments on how well I was dealing with the shooting — composed, proud, strong, calm, and brave. I didn’t want to disappoint people, but I wasn’t connecting with what they were saying. From there, it became routine for me not to connect with my feelings or with others. I built walls because I didn’t want to feel the sadness. I didn’t realize that when you don’t let sadness in, you inadvertently aren’t letting in the joy and love. You can’t pick and choose the feelings you let in.
I needed someone to tell me that my feelings were acceptable. I needed someone to re-teach me how to deal with my feelings in a healthy way. I needed someone to advise me to stop comparing my feelings to others. I needed someone to explain to me that my feelings were a way of my body communicating with my mind. I needed a counselor and mental health professional.
Today, I understand that survivors include both physically injured and non-physically injured individuals. You don’t have to be shot to be injured. Recovery is both physical and mental. The psychological effect of surviving an active shooter situation is intangible and boundless, and the level of trauma that each individual experiences will vary.
The unfortunate reality is that school shootings will continue to occur. School recovery plans need to have a mental health component, and schools need to consider the intangible effect of trauma. At a minimum, recovery should encompass all survivors, including those who were physically non-injured. My hope is that together we learn from my experience, we start a discussion about the mental health effects of school shootings and we improve school shooting recovery plans.
Lisa Hamp is a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007 in Norris Hall. With her classmates, she built a barricade to prevent the shooter from entering their classroom. Lisa suffered from untreated PTSD for many years after the Virginia Tech incident. She has begun sharing her story with law enforcement, EMS, school counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals, and will discuss her experience and her recovery this summer at Campus Safety Conference East in Philadelphia. To register for any of the Campus Safety Conferences, visit CampusSafetyConference.com.