Mass shootings harm Americans’ mental health, even from a distance, experts say

When mass shootings headlines, you may feel a range of emotions, from anxiety to fear or even a feeling of numbness one more tragedy. You are not alone.

Experts say that even from a distance, gun violence can take a toll on your mental health.

“Even if you’re not a survivor or bystander, watching it over and over again on your phone or in the headlines can really impact you in a way that I don’t think we knew before was so impactful. It’s so ‘in our face’ all the time and we have access to so many footages, so many photos, so many videos, so many accounts that we are ingesting in a way that is not healthy for us”, says Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson, a psychologist and fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

There have already been more than 230 mass shootings in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive – defined as incidents with four or more people shot, not including the perpetrator. Hearing about one tragic event after another “certainly takes a toll on someone’s mental health or even just their emotions at the time,” says Dr. Sydney Timmer-Murillo, psychologist and postdoctoral fellow in trauma and health psychology at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“If you’re looking at the local news or hearing about these mass shootings, it might heighten your concern that this could impact you, your loved one or your community,” she says.

Any type of shooting can be “incredibly distressing, even if you’re not there” and can contribute to the collective trauma we experience when violence is happening in our communities, says Dr. Justin Heinze, associate professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan and co-director of the National Center for School Safety.

“People experience grief, they can feel anger after collective trauma, and they can go through the same challenges after the event as those who are directly involved,” he says. This can include difficulties returning to normal routines, trouble sleeping, and increased feelings of fear, emptiness, and more. Some may not even recognize that they’ve been traumatized, he adds.

“An Entire Generation…with Growing Mental Health Issues”

A 2019 American Psychological Association survey found that one-third of American adults say that fear of a mass shooting prevents them from going to some public places or events.

Anderson says we also can’t forget how living in a nation plagued by gun violence affects children.

“When we think of young people and how we are asking them to prepare for dough shootings at Schoolsor we ask them to learn how to make tourniquets for peers and teachers, when we place the burden and burden on young people, we can’t help but expect that there will be greater mental strain,” she “We’re going to raise an entire generation of people with mental health issues bigger and bigger.”

As many have seen in recent years with the pandemic harming people’s mental health, chronic stress can create a longer list of physical and mental problems. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress can increase your risk for issues like high blood pressure, sleep problems, and more.

“We’re not denying what adults are going through, but what happens to a child’s brain relative to an adult is that when you’re experiencing and witnessing and being exposed to the traumatic event, it can really reshape the way your brain works. grow up. , works, operates,” says Anderson.

With young people in America already experiencing a mental health crisisconcerns about gun violence add another troubling layer.

“There’s this cumulative burden when someone is exposed to violence and experiences violence. We also know that the most traumatic experiences someone carries in childhood, that absolutely continues throughout life,” says Timmer-Murillo. “These things, in turn, can affect how they trust other people or… seek support from others. There really is this cyclical effect of how much trauma you’ve experienced and how that can impact you.”

And while schools tend to react to stories about shootings or violent events with very visible safety measures, Heinze says this needs to be accompanied by building a positive school climate and explaining why these things are in place.

“Once we combine all those things and a comprehensive school safety strategy, this may be a more developmentally appropriate way to engage with students,” he says.

Here’s what an active shooting exercise for 4th graders looks like


Because if schools implement, say, metal detectors or no-talk security cameras, students notice, says Heinze, “and report higher levels of fear that there might be a shooting (or say) that they feel less safe, and this is particularly true for non-majority students.”

Heinze also notes that when we think of violence in schools, mass shootings are just the most extreme example. Far more common is interpersonal violence between students, in-person and online bullying, and “invisible violence,” which is how he describes undiagnosed depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges students are dealing with.

“We really need to think about how mental health is playing out in our student population, because that forms the bottom of the pyramid of violence that’s taking place in schools.”

Do other factors play a role?

Some communities feel the impact more acutely than others.

“When people live in communities that already experience a great deal of gun violence, these individuals are particularly affected,” says Timmer-Murillo. “We know from research that the more people who are exposed to violence that they see in their community, hear about or witness, it can affect someone’s mental health. And we especially see an increase in anxiety or fear that you might be too affected.”

Timmer-Murillo says this speaks to the larger issue of disparities in gun violence in our country.

“Individuals who come from socioeconomic disadvantage or racial and ethnic minority individuals, these individuals are more likely to live in disadvantaged communities and experience more community violence. are the direct recipient.”

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that black (32%) and Hispanic (33%) adults were a little more than three times as likely to report daily or near-daily worry than a family member will become a victim of gun violence than white adults (10%).

While the news of a mass casualty event can be important to everyone, Heinze notes that these types of incidents represent a small percentage of gun violence.

“About 55% of firearm-related deaths are suicide and self-directed violence, about 40% are homicides, and that would include interpersonal violence, intimate partner violence. And about 5% would be things like unintentional deaths, (like) a child accessing a firearm.”

Even if you or your loved ones aren’t experiencing it directly, you can feel the ripple effects.

“If you’re hearing gunshots in the distance, if you’re seeing sirens and reactions, if you’re seeing newspapers every day with some of these headlines, I can certainly imagine that it could have a lasting impact on your mental health,” says Heinze.

How to deal with gun violence anxiety

Timmer-Murillo says he encourages people to reach out to their loved ones or mental health professionals and talk about the emotions that can arise in response to gun violence.

“A lot of times we feel this anxiety or fear, and what that fear and anxiety tells us is to retreat, isolate, or avoid — but these things maintain poor mental health,” says Timmer-Murillo. “When we avoid (and) isolate, we’re not getting the support we need…so the more we can challenge that urge to avoid or withdraw, the better the outcome.”

When it feels like there’s too much out of our control, it can also be helpful to act in a way that feels meaningful to you.

Timmer-Murillo explains that this can look like connecting with others, taking steps toward change, or simply looking inward.

“If we focus on what we have control over, which are our behaviors, our actions, we can stay focused on what is most important to us”, she explains.

Anderson hopes the situation can turn into solutions for what is causing the need for coping mechanisms in the first place.

“Addressing is such a difficult word in this case because we are asking people who are burdened with the social problem to be the ones to deal with it, when in fact there are reforms that can be implemented so that the problem of gun violence is not a problem. problem for these young people,” she says. “That’s how I hope we can frame this – instead of asking individuals, families or communities to deal with this wave of gun violence that we’re seeing, that we can control guns.”

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