[5 MIN READ]
In this article:
- Gun violence in America is on the rise, as is the mental health damage of the people it affects — from survivors and victims’ loved ones to those who read about it on the news or on social media.
- The mental health effects of gun violence can include anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can cause physical impacts like changes in heart rate, blood pressure, appetite and memory. Gun violence particularly impacts young people and vulnerable populations.
- Strategies to cope with gun violence anxiety include self-soothing techniques, counseling and positive actions.
It’s happened again. This time in Lewiston, Maine, a small city north of Portland. This time it was families enjoying a night out at a bowling alley and a restaurant. Once again, America is mourning lives taken in a mass shooting.
Headlines about mass shootings and gun violence are so numerous it may seem we are becoming numb to them, but the truth is that frequency doesn’t make them any less distressing or anxiety-provoking about when the next one will be.
“Quite understandably, I sense our local community feeling concerned, along with experiencing increased fear and anxiety,” says Kelly Barton, LICSW, MPH, a clinical social worker on the Swedish Behavioral Health Primary Care team. “I can imagine similar sensations felt by other communities across the country.”
Gun violence in America is increasing. In fact, more Americans died from gun violence in 2021 than in any other year on record. That includes deaths caused by suicide, accidents and murder. The data, released in January by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and analyzed in an April report by the Pew Research Center, also reflect the alarming rise of mass shootings in America, with the highest number ever recorded also set in 2021, at 690.
What’s increasing alongside gun violence in America is the damage it’s causing to our nation’s mental health. The horror, devastation, worry and fear most of us experience when we hear about a tragedies like the killings in Maine; the school shootings at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, or the racist massacre at Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, New York, may leave us feeling helpless and out of control, particularly when trying to explain the unexplainable to children. But there are tools we can use to help us process these feelings and take positive action where we can.
The effects of gun violence
Gun violence not only causes trauma to survivors and victims’ loved ones, but its impact also leaves a mark on everyone it touches, which is most of the country due to today’s 24/7 news cycle.
A 2019 survey from the American Psychological Association found that 71% of Americans said mass shootings are a significant source of stress in their lives, and a third of U.S. adults say they avoid certain places and events out of fear — citing public events, malls, theaters, schools and universities as the places they’re most likely to avoid.
The mental health effects of gun violence can include anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as increased stress and trauma responses, especially in people from vulnerable populations, Barton says. These spikes in stress and trauma responses may show up as changes in heart rate, blood pressure, appetite, sleep and memory.
They can also lead to chronic or long-lasting stress, which is linked to a predisposition for many physical problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
The impact on children
For a generation of children and teenagers already struggling with mental health issues, the strain of gun violence may weigh especially heavily.
Studies have found that concern about school shootings can cause symptoms of panic and anxiety in teenagers. And a 2022 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that school shootings increased absenteeism and high school and college dropout rates among young people.
But it’s not only school shootings that are affecting the mental health of children and teenagers. It’s the prevalence of gun violence in general—particularly when it happens in their own backyard.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics in 2021, children and teenagers who lived within a few blocks of a shooting in Philadelphia were more likely than children and teenagers who didn’t live nearby to use an emergency room for mental health concerns in the two months following the shooting.
And gun violence is much more common among Black and Brown children and teenagers. In 2021, for example, Black children and teenagers were about five times as likely as white children and teenagers to die from gunfire.
The effects of this compounded exposure and stress are causing some young people to suffer from anger, withdrawal and substance use disorders. Others are becoming desensitized to gun violence through overexposure. Still others are more likely to use violence in the future to resolve problems and express emotions.
Coping with gun violence anxiety
When we read about gun-related tragedies that occur in the world, we often feel like we can’t do anything to help because it’s outside of our control. But addressing our feelings and taking steps to improve mental health — especially for those most affected, like those from vulnerable populations and children — can help mitigate the mental impact.
For example, adults and children may benefit from physical and mindful self-soothing tools, Barton says, such as using your senses to notice five things around you that are neutral (or even positive). Paced breathing also may be helpful, which involves gently inhaling through the nose and then taking a little longer to gently exhale through the mouth (i.e., breathing in for four seconds, then exhaling for six).
“It may also help to mindfully notice when a moment in real life feels neutral (or even positive),” Barton says. That can reassure our systems that these kinds of moments can exist, too. In addition, repetitive relaxation strategies may help with diffusing chronic stress, such as taking a deep breath every time you look at your phone.”
Reaching out to loved ones or mental health professionals to talk through the feelings you experience in response to gun violence is another useful coping tool. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and spending time in nature. It’s also vital that we have compassion for ourselves as we move through our feelings.
“By focusing on what we do have control over, we can move forward in a positive way,” Barton says.
Helping a child
If you’re trying to help a child navigate gun violence anxiety, a good place to start is with compassion and reflective listening, Barton says. It’s important that the child feels heard and understands that they’re not alone.
“As much as we likely wish that we could fix it, when that isn’t immediately possible, offering a way for someone to express their sincere emotion about these events is critical,” Barton says.
Learn more and find a provider
The experts at Swedish Behavioral Health and Wellbeing can help if you or someone you love is dealing with stress and anxiety. Our team offers comprehensive behavioral health care, including addiction medicine, tele-health services and inpatient care.
Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. For urgent, walk-in or after-hours care, visit one of Swedish Urgent Care facilities.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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