Psychiatrist: Shooting trauma changes kids’ brains
Psychiatrist Eitan Schwarz led the mental-health team that ministered to survivors of the 1988 Laurie Dann shootings in Winnetka. | Provided
Updated: January 21, 2013 2:44PM
Some children in Newtown, Conn. and your town will have a hard time dealing with what they now know about what happened there.
Getting them over it — even the ones who only saw it on television — may be harder than it might appear.
Psychiatrist Eitan Schwarz, who led the mental-health team that ministered to survivors of the 1988 Laurie Dann shootings in Winnetka, said fear of death can lodge in a different part of the brain than other information.
And it changes the way the brain works.
“I’ve coined the term ‘malignant memories’,” the Northwestern University faculty member said. “They’re sitting in the reptilian brain, in an area that’s not accessible to the cortex.”
The basic, almost spinal, reptilian brain may be where the fight-or-flight response is triggered. The reptilian brain doesn’t respond to intellectual reasoning, and may be key to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Really scary stuff — combat deaths for a soldier, or even televised tales of school mayhem to a toddler — can “rewire” the brain, Schwarz said.
“It changes the brain, the acute stress reaction,” he said. “For most, it passes, but for 20 to 40 percent, that doesn’t go away, and they continue to have these symptoms. They suffer, and the people around them suffer.”
After the Dann shootings, Schwarz found that a significant percentage of the children at Hubbard Woods School lost interest in activities they normally enjoyed, at least for a while, and became detached from people they used to like being with.
They were jumpy and angry, and had difficulty sleeping and concentrating.
“Children are more vulnerable,” he said. “One of the things we learned from the Winnetka shooting: they generalize much more than adults do. It doesn’t take much for them to be frightened.”
Appealing to a 7-year-old intellectually in such matters is hard, the Skokie-based child psychiatrist said.
An emotional response works better, he said. That’s easier for the primitive part of our brains to understand.
Children are “looking to have parents protect them. At this age, the mind structures are plastic. They respond to love, they respond to being cocooned.
“You have to connect with something good, in the brain.”
It may be wise to do your hugging earlier than later, according to a paper written by Schwarz and colleagues Janice Kowalski, MD, and Steven Hanus, MD, examining the survivors of the Winnetka incident. They conjectured, through results of other studies, that the difficult memories may be in a holding pattern for a while, before settling in as a harder-to-change physical rewiring of the brain.
Adults at Hubbard Woods School had problems, too. Some were unable to compartmentalize what had happened, to shield themselves from the malignant memories with a “bubble of denial,” Schwarz said.
Failing to get rid thoughts of violence from their heads, they had some of the same symptoms as the children, plus others, such as hyper-vigilance.
“We followed up 12 and 18 months later, and found that teachers who displayed (symptoms) were shunned and marginalized,” he said.
“It sounds cruel,” he said. “But this is how (some other victims) treat people who are affected by this.”
Those who don’t want to remember may resent being reminded by those who have difficulty forgetting.
Recovery comes best “through love or through other healthy” responses. “If it doesn’t work, it can turn into a cancer that eats your life away.”
He said he doesn’t know about the current emotional conditions of the Hubbard Woods survivors.
Schwarz said he’s “not a political person” but President Obama was “absolutely on target” with his response to the deaths Friday of 20 children and six women at the Connecticut School.
“He shed a tear, he put the flag at half staff ... he said, ‘I have empathy for you.’ He was the big father. It couldn’t have been a better reaction.”
Like everyone else, Schwarz wonders how anyone can pick children to murder.
He noted that most mass killers of children usually had issues about their own childhood, and no children of their own.
“And kids are very, very, easy targets,” he said. “The shooter, the killer, is he projecting stuff onto these kids (that reflects) his own vulnerability, his own self-loathing?”
Mass killers of children are “usually in their younger teens and 20s, and have not developed the capacity to be sympathetic to children. They’re not parents; their development has not been able to go that far.
“We are naturally social beings. We need other people. Something went wrong in their development.”
They’re not necessarily mentally ill, and are different, he said, from most who are.
“Most people who have psychiatric disorders are gentle, kind people,” he said. “They are usually good people who are in pain.”
He said a key to those who kill in this way goes beyond “what is present, to what is missing.
“What is missing is faith, love, gratitude. They lost or never had the capacity that gives value to human beings.”