NAU Psychologist Studies Grief, Anxiety Following Campus Shooting

Oct 9, 2018

Today marks three years since a shooting on Northern Arizona University’s campus left three students injured and one dead. In the days that followed, NAU psychologist Heidi Wayment surveyed students to learn how they responded—with grief, depression, or anxiety—and also what helped them heal. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Wayment about her recently published findings.

Candlelight vigil
Credit Mark Henle/Arizona Republic


What was the question you wanted to answer, what did you want to find out with this survey?

I really wanted to find out, is grief a predominate reaction initially? Or, in combination with depressive reactions or anxious reactions? No study that I’ve come across has made that distinction…. Both are painful. But grief tends to bring people together, which is what my research has shown, and depression tends to isolate people. So it could have very different implications for how people cope and what types of help is best after that experience.

So you designed this study really quickly after the shooting that happened on NAU’s campus, you had to write those survey questions I think it was within a couple of days.

We had the surveys ready to go, because I do this kind of work, and we were given permission. We had a sample of over 400 undergraduate students. That was collected very quickly within five to ten days, most of them within five days. And grief was the predominate response. Not depression. There was some anxiety, sure, people’s uncertainty, what does this mean, am I safe here at NAU? I looked at the open ended responses and the number one response was shock. How can this happen here, how can this happen to what we thought was a safe community? It shatters our assumption about what a safe and predictable world is.  

Let’s talk a little more about that. So based on your survey, what were some of the factors that were associated with a student having a more acute reaction, more distress in response?

People can vary. There are studies that show over and over again, the biggest predictor of depressive reactions are past mental health issues, other things that don’t have to do with the loss per se, but the loss is one of those situations that brings forth these kinds of reactions. Whereas the predictors of grief tend to be factors that say a person identifies with the lost person. There’s empathy there. We did measure empathy in my study and grief is related to empathy and depression is not. 

Do you feel comfortable at this point maybe making some suggestions for how people can respond after a collective trauma?

I think the suggestion is not to stay isolated, but to share one’s feelings with close others….. But I think grief is an important piece. I think people need to know that’s normal, and it’s tied to these things that are so positive. They’re tied because we do empathize with the individuals or we do identify with the individuals. And that’s compassion, right? Feeling that’s there no distinction or not much of a distinction between us and the people for whom tragedy hits right at home, that’s a compassion reaction. That’s what people need to remember if they can.  

Heidi thanks so much for speaking with me today.

You’re so welcome, I appreciate the opportunity.