On Michigan State campus, fragile emotions and a fierce desire for support
- MSU students are processing Monday’s shootings in different ways
- Some students say they hope MSU continues expanded counseling services for the foreseeable future
- Experts say most people impacted by mass shootings eventually show resilience
EAST LANSING — When gunfire erupted Monday at the MSU Union, Evan DeRicco and Sam Gardner were among the herd of students who scrambled to safety, leaving their backpacks and other belongings behind.
Days later, after having time to process their shock and retrieve their personal effects, the two students appeared to occupy different emotional places. For DeRicco, a senior studying music education, the campus vigil Wednesday made the trauma of the rampage “feel way more real.”
“Up until that point it had kind of only felt like a dream to me. But seeing how it impacted other people has really hit me the hardest,” he said.
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He recalled someone playing a bongo at the vigil. And every time the person struck the drum, DeRicco said he felt “just a little bit startled.”
Gardner, a junior studying political science and Mandarin, went to a friend’s dorm from the shooting, then headed to The Villa, a house operated by Grace + Truth Ministry. He said his faith and conversations with friends helped him process what happened Monday night.
“I’ve been OK,” he said. “There have been a few times where I felt a little off.”
Though mass shootings account for just a tiny percentage of the country's gun deaths, experts say they can be uniquely disturbing because they happen without warning, often in places that should seem safe: schools, concerts, or office buildings.
Sandra Graham-Bermann, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan whose research includes traumatic stress reactions in children exposed to violence, said the psychological impact of the MSU shootings will likely be most challenging for students like those at the Union or Berkey Hall on Monday, who were close to or struck by the gunfire.
“The people who are most likely to be traumatized are those people who were injured or were in the line of people thinking they were next or are covered in the blood of their friends.”
Of course, what’s considered in the line of fire can be subjective. Plenty of students on this campus of 50,000 have shared accounts of locking themselves in closets or behind refrigerators for hours as they followed the misdirection of social media on their phones about the supposed location of the shooter or shooters prowling East Lansing. For many, the threat may have seemed just around the corner.
Sophomore Delanie Prince barricaded herself in her dorm, shut the blinds and turned off all of the lights. She was on the phone with her mom, listening to the police scanner and texting friends that she loved them. She grabbed makeshift weapons of scissors and knives.
“I was nauseous and panicking the whole time,” she said.
Prince was back at her family’s home near Flint by about 3 a.m. Tuesday.
She told Bridge she appreciated that MSU has made counseling services widely available but would like to see that level of counseling support through at least the end of this school year.
“It’s never going to feel like a place where I can walk comfortably without having to look over my shoulder,” she said.
And then there is that smaller group of students in a club that nobody wants to belong to — those who experienced previous shootings.
Graham-Bermann said students exposed to significant trauma before Monday’s shootings — including students who endured the Oxford High School shootings in 2021 or the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012— also can expect to face greater challenges.
“If there’s any kid who was in Oxford High School who ended up at MSU, that’s a double whammy. There’s kids who may have experienced community violence or other violence, and those kids are very vulnerable to the effects of this.”
Graham-Bermann said symptoms that include nightmares, depression, anxiety and hypervigilance can be expected after an event like this. In most cases, she said, they will abate over a month or so.
Those whose symptoms persist longer should seek mental health counseling and therapy, she said.
“They are going to need help,” she said.
Danielle Atangana, a senior, has tried to take her mind off of Monday’s events but she said she’ll come across a photo of one of the three students killed Monday on social media and it will make “her heart sink.” Trauma can be like that, huddling beneath the surface then pouncing.
She said she feels the university worked fast to provide mental health resources but hopes MSU will continue to keep plenty of counselors available in the weeks and months ahead as students may experience intense, trauma-induced emotions at different times.
“It’s not just the people that were there Monday night, it's everybody,” she said, from those at the scene of the shootings to students in distant dorms or apartments who huddled in fear not knowing where the gunman, since identified as Anthony McRae, might travel next.
Atangana, from Berrien Springs, is among more than 14,000 people by Thursday afternoon who signed a Change.org petition urging the university to offer hybrid or online classes for the rest of the spring semester.
[On Thursday, MSU said Berkey Hall, where Atangana took two classes and two students were killed and several others injured, would remain closed for the semester. As for remote class, Interim President Teresa Woodruff said the university is “considering all options.”]
Experts on trauma say most students will find a way to cope and move forward ─ even after such a shocking event.
“You will never forget it. You can learn to live with it. Most people are going to be able to eventually adjust,” Graham-Bermann said.
Indeed, studies show most survivors of mass shootings show resilience, but that comes with an important caveat — people tend to mend better when they feel connected to their community in the aftermath of the violence and when they have continued access to mental health support.
Something as simple as memorial events, like Wednesday’s vigil, can help students form deeper connections with others, even on a large campus like MSU’s. So too can online fundraisers to help those wounded, therapy dogs at spaces with mental health professionals, and the flood of support MSU students are receiving from peers at other universities, from an otherwise rival in Ann Arbor to farther flung schools.
"As a community psychologist, I've seen firsthand the importance of mental health promotion efforts that have nothing to do with counseling per se, but that help the community heal together," Erika Felix, an assistant psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the American Psychological Association about her study of a horrific incident near her campus in 2014, when an assailant shot, stabbed and drove his vehicle into a crowd, killing six and injuring 14.
Several MSU students interviewed this week expressed as much concern about the emotional welfare of other students as they did about their own health.
MSU junior Cale Mitchell told Bridge he hopes the school reaches out directly to all the students who were in Berkey or the MSU Union Monday night to offer mental health services.
He said he typically works a night shift at a building near Berkey. He didn't come in Monday night because of the shooting and said he feels he is doing OK, but he said there are several other students who likely need more help than they are currently getting.
MSU spokesman Dan Olsen said the MSU Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) has in fact reached out to students who were taking classes in Berkey and MSU Student Life & Engagement is working to connect students who work in the student union to mental health resources.
Justin Heinze, an educational psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said changes in student behavior can be expected.
“It would not be surprising if students would be using alcohol or drugs in ways that they normally wouldn’t do. You could see changes in their academic performance. They might have trouble focusing. They might stop going to the gym or going outside.”
Heinze said these too are signs some of these students may need mental health services. “It is so important that parents, faculty and others are monitoring this.”
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