Examining How Constant Exposure To Mass Tragedy Affects People NPR's Rachel Martin talks Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University School of Public Health, about how people can be affected by constant exposure to mass tragedy.

Examining How Constant Exposure To Mass Tragedy Affects People

Examining How Constant Exposure To Mass Tragedy Affects People

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NPR's Rachel Martin talks Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University School of Public Health, about how people can be affected by constant exposure to mass tragedy.


You know, we talk a lot about how communities are reshaped by tragedies, how people's lives are changed when they experience violence firsthand. But how about those who watch these tragedies and disasters unfold live through phone and television screens? How are those lives affected by a constant exposure to mass tragedy? Well, Dr. Sandro Galea is the dean at Boston University's School of Public Health, and he spoke about these questions with Rachel Martin.


Dr. Galea, thanks for being with us.

SANDRO GALEA: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: What does the research say? What do we know about how people are affected by this constant exposure to tragedy like the massacre that we saw happened last week in South Florida?

GALEA: Yeah, the research on this is very much evolving. We started getting some good evidence after 9/11, which probably was the first large-scale traumatic event that was watched by millions in real time. And that evidence started to suggest that people who do experience the event through the media can well go on to have psychological distress or mental health issues themselves. With a particular wrinkle, the people who are most affected are people who have had previous traumatic experiences in their own lives. So the data from that event suggests that if you had been, let's say, in a car accident and you might have had something wrong or not but then another event happens, and that event then triggers the psychological distress that might have been latent after the car accident.

And since that event, there has been a growing body of literature that suggests that experiencing events vicariously through watching things live on the media is having more and more potential to affect whole populations, both those who are directly affected as well as those who are indirectly affected.

MARTIN: We also have just more exposure to the details, right? It's not just tuning in to cable news and seeing these stories and images on a loop like we did when the towers came down. There are even more pictures...


MARTIN: ...Even videos that are coming from the events as they happen. I mean, we saw the students in the Parkland shooting were taking video in the real moment. And we all absorbed that.

GALEA: Yeah, it's an excellent point. So, you know, going back to the 9/11 data, we found that it wasn't just watching any images that mattered. It's actually watching images of people hurting that matter. So, for example, you mentioned the loop of the towers falling. The best evidence after 9/11 suggested that watching the towers falling did not make an impact on people's mental well-being. What did make an impact is watching images of people falling.

MARTIN: Right.

GALEA: So in today's context and the context of Parkland shooting and other events like it, it's the videos of people who are actually experiencing trauma or who are in fear. That's what matters. So - and I think it's very much as a human response, a compassionate empathic human response. Now, of course, from a mental health point of view, that is horrific and terrible. From a system change point of view, one hopes that our shared compassion for the people who are directly affected by these events will push us into action that will stop some of these events.

MARTIN: What advice do you give to people who are trying to navigate their way through these tragedies, either as someone who was victimized personally or just those of us who've been observers to all of it? How do we cope?

GALEA: Perhaps, the best advice I could give is to recognize that psychological distress that becomes chronically felt conditions - typically things like post-traumatic stress disorder or mood anxiety disorders - are both real and disabling. So I suppose you asked me about advice. The advice is to be aware that these are real concerns and real issues and that anybody who is listening who thinks that they may be having psychological distress from these events should see a mental health professional.

MARTIN: Dr. Sandro Galea - he's dean of the School of Public Health at Boston University. Thank you so much for your time.

GALEA: Thank you for having me.

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