Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

StFX study shedding light on coping difficulties with COVID-19, Nova Scotia shooting 

September 2nd, 2020

A new study from StFX is shedding light on coping difficulties individuals are having against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the mass shooting in Nova Scotia in April. 

The study, “Tragedy during COVID-19: A qualitative study of coping with a spree shooting during a pandemic,” was led by StFX psychology professor Dr. Karen Blair, StFX adjunct professor Dr. Rhea Hoskin, and StFX graduate and Queen’s University PhD student Laura de la Roche, who took the lead in analyzing the survey data. 

Ms. de la Roche says the survey found participants discussed being overwhelmed and experiencing continuous feelings of hopelessness faced with these simultaneous crises; they worried about both their own and others' mental well-being.

“Many participants reported the shooting changed their perspective towards the COVID-19 regulations creating frustration towards them, specifically the regulations barring any socialization with family and friends. They discussed the inability to manage both tragedies, and having to avoid thinking about one, either the pandemic or shooting, in order to cope with the other,” she says.  

UNDERSTANDING COPING STRATEGIES

Dr. Blair, who has been studying collective grief responses to mass shootings since 2016, including the Pulse Nightclub, Pittsburgh Synagogue, and Christchurch Mosques, says coping abilities following a spree shooting during a pandemic have never been researched and are important to understand so support systems can be established should multiple simultaneous tragedies occur in the future. 

Understanding the coping strategies of those impacted by the Nova Scotia shooting during the pandemic may help us understand if and why individuals are using maladaptive or adaptive coping strategies, she says.  

Ms. de la Roche, who presented the survey’s findings in early August at the online Canadian Psychological Association conference, says their preliminary analyses explored responses to two specific, open-ended questions.

The survey had asked: 1) how has the spree shooting influenced or changed your ability to cope with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and 2) how has your ability to cope with or respond to the spree shooting in Nova Scotia been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spree shooting, they found, negatively impacted the individual’s ability to cope with the ongoing pandemic, and acted as a barrier to accessing their usual social support systems, such as family and friends, as well as their sense of connection to their community. 

She said participants reported decreased adherence to COVID-19 regulations, decreased ability to cope with the ongoing pandemic and a decreased sense of connection and availability to social and interpersonal supports. 

INCREASED CONCERNS

Survey participants also reported increased mental health challenges, concern for their own and others’ mental health, and need for interpersonal support, the researchers say. 

Importantly, they say, these themes were present across the participant pool—simply having a heartfelt connection to Nova Scotia brought the tragedy of this event close to people and made it harder for them to cope with the pandemic, even if they were not personally connected to any of the victims or their families.

The researchers found too that when asked how COVID-19 impacted the ability to cope with the spree shooting, participants reported decreased adherence to COVID-19 regulations, decreased ability to mourn and cope socially, and decreased availability of social support. 

They reported increased frustration with online updates pertaining to COVID-19 as well as the shooting, mental health challenges, emotional instability and community support. The overshadowing of the spree shooting by COVID-19 updates was upsetting to the participants and they found it difficult to cope with their emotions related to the spree shooting. Many participants discussed their increasing mental health challenges, however, the outpouring community support was discussed as a positive influence to their well-being. 

For both questions, participants discussed being overwhelmed and feelings of hopelessness faced with simultaneous crises. They discussed the inability to manage both and having to avoid thinking about one to cope with the other. Feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear and stress were expressed while discussing their difficulties coping with the pandemic and shooting.

“The results of this study demonstrate the influences of simultaneous crises on individuals’ ability to cope and maintain their mental health and stability, specifically when faced with the COVID-19 regulations restricting interpersonal interactions,” says Ms. de la Roche.

VERY CHALLENGING

Dr. Blair says despite studying this topic for four years, she never quite expected to be facing the prospect of such an event here in Nova Scotia. 

“I think that fits well with what my participants express as well—there’s always the sense that ‘that won’t happen here’—and yet, here we are. 

“It was very challenging to decide whether to extend my research to include the Nova Scotia shooting. On the one hand, it was another mass shooting event that impacted a very tightly knit community that shares an important identity, being Nova Scotian. On the other, it felt a bit too close to home and it is always challenging with this line of research to approach it respectfully and to not make anyone feel uncomfortable.”

Dr. Blair says in the end, based on many past participants telling them that participating in these studies has been helpful in allowing them time to sit and really think about their thoughts and feelings in response to the event, she decided to launch a similar study based on the shooting in Nova Scotia. There was the added element of the pandemic, which made the event unique compared to others she’d studied. 

The researchers recruited participants through online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, making the survey available worldwide. A total of 388 participants completed the survey, 316 of whom completed the required open-ended questions specific to the current study. 

Participants who completed the survey were predominantly located in Canada (96.5 per cent), specifically within Nova Scotia (82.4 per cent). The participants outside of Canada all had a connection of some sort to Nova Scotia such as family, friends, work, previous home location, and school.

QUALATIVE RESEARCH EYE OPENING

Ms. de la Roche completed her undergraduate degree in psychology at StFX two years ago, where she took multiple classes with Dr. Blair. “When an opportunity to work with Dr. Blair in her lab in a research capacity as a volunteer presented itself, I was extremely excited. I had some experience with qualitative analysis and reports from both classes and my master’s thesis work at Trent University, and therefore was able to jump into the qualitative work within the KLB Research lab,” she says. 

She says while not the focus of her master’s thesis work, she has had a growing interest into how individuals cope during crises and the influence of the current social environment on individual’s well-being. 

Ms. de la Roche says qualitative work is always eye-opening as you glimpse into the participants’ lives through their own words and descriptions. “This study has been no exception and has furthered my interest in including a qualitative viewpoint in my future research. No previous studies have had the ability to investigate how individuals cope when faced with a shooting in the midst of a global pandemic. I am incredibly honoured to be able to articulate and summarize the coping difficulties individuals are currently having and hopefully shed light on how the environment created by the pandemic has influenced their coping abilities. 

“Working in the KLB Research lab with this study will be instrumental in furthering not only my academic-based experience, but also in directing my interest and understanding of what coping research entails when it involves sensitive topics and tragedies, such as the spree shooting and pandemic,” she says. 

“StFX is the unique and special kind of place, unlike other universities, where even after you’ve graduated and been gone for two years, you continue to have lasting connections with former professors. My time at StFX and the connections made there set me up to continue having great research and learning opportunities, exemplified through this study taking place not only over the summer, but during a pandemic, that will continue to serve me as I continue into my PhD studies at Queen’s University this fall.” 

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