On Oct. 1, 2017, the lives of more than 22,000 people and their extended families changed irrevocably, and the Las Vegas community stood shocked and horrified in the wake of the largest mass shooting in modern American history.
Like others on campus, my team wanted to help make sense of what felt senseless. We quickly devised a study on the psychological experiences of those who attended the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival and those in our larger Las Vegas community to gain a deeper understanding of how this tragedy changed us.
Within two weeks after the incident, we launched an online survey, collecting stories about the event and tracking a variety of psychological symptoms. Nearly 170 people — roughly 50 who’d attended the festival and 120 from the Vegas community—participated in this initial data collection.
We asked people to complete our first wave of data collection within a month of the incident. We checked in with them 45 days, three months, and six months after the incident to collect follow-up data and see how their experiences may have changed over time.
As could be expected with such a life-threatening experience, those who were at the festival had substantially higher levels of post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms than people in the broader community. But we also found that both groups had higher levels of PTS symptoms and higher depression scores than people outside the Las Vegas area. The incident did indeed affect our entire community.
However, the events of Oct. 1 did not seem to impact our participants’ levels of well-being on the whole. In fact, participants’ levels of gratitude were highest immediately after the tragedy, indicating a surge of thankfulness in the community as well as in survivors of the festival.
Furthermore, throughout the course of the study, people who were at the festival had higher levels of gratitude than people in the community. This surprising result indicates that people may grow psychologically even after experiencing the most grievous trauma.
Within three months, participants’ negative psychological symptoms were generally reduced, though there was still substantial variability in people’s symptoms. Overall, PTS and depression levels in the broader Las Vegas community returned to normal ranges. However, people who’d attended the festival continued to exhibit elevated symptoms of PTS and depression.
Many wonder what can help people recover in these types of situations. We found that the positive effects of support from our participants’ social circles took roughly six months to build up enough to buffer against experiencing PTS and depression. Conversely, criticism from participants’ social circles was associated with higher levels of PTS and depression, and the negative impacts of criticism began registering psychologically within 45 days after the event.
Oct. 1 changed our lives and our city, but we can still provide each other with the social support that helps all of us cope with any tragedy. I hope our team’s work will encourage everyone to do just that.