News & Politics

Gun Violence and Mental Health Are Connected—But Not in the Way You’d Think

An oversupply of guns, lax laws and impulsive teenagers makes for a deadly combination.

Photo Credit: Keith Homan / Shutterstock.com

A few weeks ago, Jeremiah P. was one of thousands of high school students across the nation to walk out of class in support of stricter gun laws. He was proud to be part of the protest at his small school in rural North Carolina, where many students have access to the guns their parents use for hunting or sport.

Later the same day, Jeremiah’s brother Jacob discovered graffiti written in a school bathroom stall that contained a threat to shoot up the school. Jacob is over six feet tall and plays on the football team, but was so scared to leave the bathroom that he texted his mom to ask for help. With the news of Parkland fresh in her mind, she called the school and demanded that the police officers—who were there to supervise the earlier protest—escort her sons to the office where she would pick them up immediately. Instead of being embarrassed by their mother’s public display of concern, they were just relieved to be going home—because at school, they don’t feel safe anymore.

The tragic shooting in Parkland mobilized its survivors, driving them all the way to our nation’s capital to demand stricter gun laws. Their activism has inspired other young people to rise up and demand steps be taken to make this nation safer—starting in their schools. In addition to the conversations over whether mass shootings are a result of mental illnessaccess to guns, or both, we need to have a real conversation about the mental health consequences of surviving, witnessing or even just hearing about gun violence—especially for our youth.

While the omnipresence of Parkland survivors in the media has made gun control seem more urgent than ever, they’re not the first teens to advocate for stricter gun laws. Young people have been fighting gun violence for years through organizations like Black Lives MatterCampaign ZeroMillion Hoodies and the Community Justice Reform Coalition—many called to action after a family member or friend was unjustly killed by police. The loss of a young person to violence is especially stressful for youth, families and communities. It’s a loss with no purpose and no justification, and one that’s magnified when others don’t value lives lost equally and don’t grieve in the same way when those lives are black or poor. That’s why it’s encouraging to see Parkland survivors wholeheartedly acknowledge their relative privilege as they explicitly work to share their platform with March4OurLives members in Chicago and join forces with veteran activists working to combat gun violence nationwide.

There are also many teenagers who witness or experience violence, often involving guns, in their own backyards—or perhaps more accurately, on the blocks where they live. Too often, these teens experience gun violence unpredictably and repeatedly. It’s hard enough to recover from this kind of trauma once, with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder being normal reactions to losing someone suddenly and violently. It’s even harder to go through this trauma again and again. This is especially concerning for young people as their brains are still developing—trauma at this formative stage can have lasting effects on mental and physical health.

An oversupply of guns and loose laws regulating their sales and use doesn’t just increase the risk of mass shootings. In the United States, about 92 people per day are killed by a gun. Less than one half of one percent of these deaths occur in mass shootings. Many of these deaths are homicides occurring in the midst of intimate partner violence—but the majority are suicides.

This is one of the most important ways in which guns and mental health are connected,  especially for young people—after all, suicide is the leading cause of non-accidental death for teenagers in the United States. The scariest part? Most teens don’t spend a long time planning to kill themselves. It’s often an impulsive act. But we know there are risk factors, including having witnessed or experienced interpersonal violence and having access to a firearm.

The impulsive nature of teenage suicidality, coupled with the uniquely American easy access to guns, makes it much more likely that suicidal thoughts and behaviors will culminate in death. While the naysayers claim that people will find an alternative way to kill themselves, the numbers tell a different story: 90% of people who try to end their lives, but survive, don’t kill themselves later. Guns make it virtually impossible to get that second chance—because they’re so effectively lethal.

Gun violence takes a serious toll on our collective mental health. It’s no wonder that teens like Jeremiah and Jacob are scared to go to school—guns are so easily accessible and schools from Maryland to Hawaii have received mass shooting threats in recent days. We cannot remain silent. We must take action now to protect the physical and mental health of our youth. After all, the future is in their hands. They deserve, at the very least, to be safe.

My prescription for survivors or witnesses of gun violence

Rx 1: Talk. It’s important that you talk about your lived experiences, especially with people who’ve shared them with you. It’ll help you see you’re not alone and that your feelings are valid. In fact, by sharing, you may be helping others recover, too. Getting stuck in the grief process and needing help to cope is not a psychological weakness or defect. It’s normal to need help from a mental health professional to work through trauma, but when feelings are kept bottled up inside, it’s hard to access that help.

Rx 2: Self-care. This isn’t selfish. It’s normal to experience anxiety, depression, exhaustion or pain after trauma—but it’s important to eat, sleep and exercise normally. Try to stick to familiar, comforting routines, and avoid trying to block out your feelings with alcohol or drugs. Your feelings are how you process the trauma, make sense of it, and move forward. Embrace them.

Rx 3: Limit your news and social media consumption. The news and social media can retraumatize you by making you relive the original trauma repeatedly and by creating new trauma through cyberbullying and internet trolling. Figure out ways someone can help filter that exposure on your behalf—but on your own terms.

Rx 4: Be patient. It can take months, even years, to recover from serious trauma. Everyone is different, but it’ll usually take longer to feel normal than you might think. Take your time.

Rx 5: Take action. For many survivors of trauma, finding meaning and purpose in the world—which often involves working to prevent the very trauma that happened to you or to help other survivors like yourself—is an important piece of the recovery process. This might include mobilization and activism, but it can take many forms. Figure out what makes sense and is rewarding to you.

 

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Dr. Celine Gounder is a doctor, epidemiologist, podcaster, and one of People Magazine’s 25 Women Changing the World.