Posttraumatic stress disorder in survivors of a mass shooting

Carol S North, Elizabeth M. Smith, Edward L. Spitznagel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

173 Scopus citations


Objective: Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been best studied among combat veterans. Less is known about PTSD among civilian populations exposed to traumatic events. A recent mass murder spree by a gunman in a cafeteria in Killeen, Tex., has provided a unique opportunity to study acute- phase civilian responses to a combat type of experience. Method: Approximately 1 month after the disaster, 136 survivors were interviewed with the Diagnostic Interview Schedule/Disaster Supplement. Results: In the acute postdisaster period, 20% of the men and 36% of the women met criteria for PTSD, which was the most prevalent psychiatric disorder. Most subjects who developed PTSD had no history of psychiatric illness. Rates of preexisting PTSD were relatively high and did not predict the presence of PTSD after the disaster. A history of other predisaster psychiatric disorders predicted postdisaster PTSD in women but not in men. One-half of the women and one- fourth of the men with postdisaster PTSD also met criteria for another postdisaster psychiatric diagnosis, especially major depression. Psychopathology was infrequent in subjects without PTSD. Conclusions: Disaster intervention workers may be able to most effectively use limited mental health provider resources in the acute postdisaster period by focusing on screening for acute PTSD, which will identify the majority of cases with psychiatric disorders following this kind of disaster. Survivors who have no history of psychiatric disorder should be screened along with those who do because in the present study, they represented the majority of the PTSD cases. Subjects with a history of major depression and women with preexisting psychopathology may be especially vulnerable to posttraumatic syndromes. Individuals with PTSD should be further examined for additional psychiatric diagnoses that may complicate recovery, especially major depression. PTSD among survivors of civilian combat-like experiences does not appear to present in the same way that it has been described in Vietnam veterans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)82-88
Number of pages7
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1994

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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