Students talk psychological stress, toll on mental health from school shootings

KANAS CITY, Mo. — To mark the start of the school year and a renewed focus on school safety, KSHB 41 I-Team’s Caitlin Knute sat down with a group of students and recent graduates from across the Kansas City area, ranging in age from 12 to 23 years- old.

This is the second part of a two-part series exploring student perspectives into a world of school shootings and active shooter drills.

PART 1 | Kansas City-area students open up to discuss school safety, violence

Part two includes our conversation with Christina Low Kapalu, a child psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

Caitlin: What memories do you have of school shootings and drills?

Isaac, middle school student: “When I was in like second grade, or younger, you didn’t really understand; They hid it from you. They didn’t tell you exactly what was happening. But, once you go into like older grades, you start to understand that a bad person, potentially with a weapon could come into your classroom and start like hurting people.”

Chase Lucas/KSHB 41

Nick, college student: “We started changing our mindset to it’s not a matter of if, it could be a matter of when. I think having that change in mindset has helped in some ways. Because, when you’re expecting it to happen and it doesn’t t, then it’s a win-win. And if you’re expecting it to happen, and it does, then at least you’re more prepared than being completely blindsided.”

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Chase Lucas/KSHB 41

(Following the roundtable with students, we met with Kapalu to get her reaction to the students’ thoughts.)

Caitlin: What’s your reaction to what they are saying?

Kapalu: “It’s pretty consistent with what I’m hearing from patients, that these drills really bring about the reality of gun violence in schools for kids, and they occur pretty frequently in schools. And every time they occur, it brings that reality to the forefront of their thinking. It’s disheartening to hear students say things like, ‘It’s not if, but when.'”

Caitlin: What’s the best way for a parent to respond? What advice do you have for kids themselves who might be watching this if these drills are causing anxiety? How can we help kids manage this?

Kapalu: “I think we all start with a basic foundation of providing reassurance of safety. Schools can provide reassurance of safety, providers, parents, that kids are safe, and here are the things that we are doing to keep you safe. We are doing these drills to keep you safe so that you understand what to do in a moment of panic if the situation were ever to come up and that’s the point of the drill.”

Caitlin: What scares you the most or gives you anxiety about drills?

Isaac: “When I was like growing up, I had a fear of going to the bathroom by myself, because I always was scared if there was a person who came around with a gun that I would be stuck in the bathroom, and I have to lock the stall door and stand on top of the toilet, while somebody is going through a school with a gun.”

Rachel, college graduate: “I just wanted to add that I would really like to have children someday. But like with our generation, there are so many things that I worry about. The top thing that comes to mind for me is dropping my child off to school. That is absolutely terrifying. And something that I think about all the time, and I’ll think about in the future when I decide to have children as well.”

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Chase Lucas/KSHB 41

Caitlin: How do you approach fears like these? Are these reasonable? Are these unreasonable fears?

Kapalu: “They’re all reasonable fears. And a fear does not have to be reasonable to the person listening, it just has to be believable to the person experiencing it. I think it’s important that we don’t minimize fears, we validate them . And, really remember I think we want to solve. We want to take away pain. We want to make things better. But sometimes kids just want us to listen. Our job is really to be the vessel for their fears and their worries and just hold it while they work through it, not necessarily fix it for them.”

Tips from Dr. Kapalu

Another big takeaway from Kapalu, if your student expresses anxiety or fears surrounding school shootings, explain to them that, while it is a possibility, there’s a very low probability of it happening.

Also, focus on the steps that are being taken to keep them safe.

And talk to your child using age-appropriate language in small doses. Kapalu says this isn’t the kind of conversation you have to have all at once.

More resources from the library

If you’re looking for ways to start these conversations, we reached out to the Johnson County Public Library for books that can help.

The first one for adults that is written by a children’s mental health specialist: “When the World Feels Like a Scary Place.”

Next, two examples of books written by psychologists for younger children: “On the News” and “What to Do When the News Scares You.”

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