Friends and family members of college students should provide a listening ear regarding students' fears and concerns about the Virginia Tech tragedy, says a Purdue University expert who studied how college students coped with 9/11.
"My research suggests that many college students are experiencing some degree of emotional distress as a consequence of the Virginia Tech shootings," says Erina MacGeorge, an assistant professor of communication who studies the role of comforting in relationships. "Even though there is geographic distance between other students and Virginia Tech, there is still a great possibility for students to experience stress because they can relate to the campus environment.
"We know that students who received more comfort and support after 9/11 felt safer and were less likely to experience psychological distress and health-related problems such as depression."
On April 16, Cho Seung-Hui, a Virginia Tech senior killed 32 people and himself during an on campus shooting spree.
"The intense media coverage, just as we saw with 9/11, makes such an event seem even closer to home," MacGeorge says. "And, even college students who are hundreds or thousands of miles away, may be connected to students at Virginia Tech through communication technologies such as an instant messenger or Facebook."
Those lending an ear should be attentive listeners who validate the student's feelings, she says.
"Many people can cope with bad situations with help from their friends," MacGeorge says. "Often people just need a person to listen as they talk about and work through their feelings. It is important for the listener to not minimize the situation. And they should be careful when trying to distract the person from the problem. It can be seen as trivializing the person's fears.
"Friends and family members should also watch out for students who may be showing symptoms of severe distress, such as being unusually upset, not sleeping well or experiencing difficulty concentrating. In such cases, professional counseling is likely needed."
MacGeorge's article "After 9/11: Goal Disruption, Emotional Support and Psychological Health in a Lower Exposure Sample," is in press for the Health Communication journal. In the study, she surveyed more than 500 college students during the first two weeks of December 2001 about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Even though these students were not at the site, many of them reported the event affected how they live. For example, some people reported that they became afraid for their physical safety, worried about financial security and did not want to travel abroad.
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