The Invisible Wounds: The Mental Health impact of Gun Violence

Every time we hear another news story about how gun violence has created havoc and claimed more innocent lives somewhere in the world, we find ourselves shaken to the core. We immediately feel anguish for the victims, pain for the families who lost loved ones, anger at the perpetrator of the crime, rage at the system which allows these senseless acts of violence to continue and we may find ourselves feeling vulnerable and worried about our own safety as well.



Mass shootings and instances of gun violence have sadly become more frequent than ever before and while Mental Health has been discussed as part of the narratives around gun control regulations, this has unfortunately only focussed on the Mental Health of the perpetrators when in fact the reality remains that those who are struggling with a Mental Illness are more likely to be a victim rather than the perpetrator of these crimes. The Mental Health conversation needs to move away from this and towards the wider aspect that these shootings leave deep scars on everyone impacted directly or indirectly. While we may share a message of thoughts, condolences and prayers for those who are injured, those lost and the loved ones bereaved, these events impact the Mental Health of everyone - those who lost a loved one, those who witnessed this, the media persons reporting these stories, and even those of us who have been bystanders and are consuming these stories, even if we are miles or oceans away from where this all happened.

Mass shootings are happening almost weekly, instilling fear, panic, helplessness, hopelessness, and hypervigilance in individuals and communities. While individuals killed and injured in atrocities such as the Sandy Hook and the Uvalde School shootings are publicly remembered and mourned, victims of these tragedies are not limited to those men, women, and children killed, injured, or present during these horrific events. The consequences of gun violence are more pervasive and affect entire communities, families, and children. What is important to talk about is that the trauma and mental health impact of these instances is on not just the survivors, the families of the deceased and local communities but also as vicarious trauma on bystanders and others who consume these stories. Violence of this nature or the fear of violence can lead to trauma and chronic stress which can impact their psychological development while increasing the likelihood of them developing a Mental Health illness later in life.


When we look at the survivors of these heinous acts and the families of those who have lost a loved one, there have been increased cases of severe depression, chronic pain, grief, fear, isolation, PTSD, self-doubt and strained relationships. They have also reported long-term Mental harm while survivors also report increased rates of unemployment and substance use disorders. Survivors may also deal with thoughts of self-harm, suicidal ideation and experience 'Survivor's guilt'. For families and loved ones left behind, there are increased rates of fear, trauma, prolonged grief and loneliness along with poor mental health which continues to impact their life drastically, long after the incident is over. Children affected by gun violence, especially those who have witnessed, or survived school-shootings too might move through varied feelings including shock, rage, fear, sadness, terror and helplessness but owing to their still developing skills of communication and emotional processing, they might exhibit their thoughts, feelings and behaviours differently. They may also experience drastic nightmares, unexplained aches and pains, intrusive thoughts, drastic and sudden changes in their mood, anxiety attacks, withdrawal, regressive behaviours like bedwetting, or may mimic behaviours around the shootings.


Gun violence also affects entire neighbourhoods and the wider communities. Shootings threaten our sense of feeling safe which affects our ability to live a healthy life and thrive. While entire neighbourhoods live in this fear and terror of something happening, there are detrimental impacts on the entire community in terms of a breakdown of cohesion, increased trauma and weakened cooperation. This can impact their ability to work together to address the cause of trauma itself and build safer communities. Pervasive community gun violence has a particularly devastating impact on children and adolescents who grow up to be more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, struggle with depression, anxiety and PTSD, have difficulty in school (ranging from poor academic performance to disciplinary issues) and even engage in criminal activity. Additionally, there have been reports where children living in areas near schools or areas where shootings have occurred had higher visits to the Emergency department.


When we look at secondary trauma, this can be associated with not just those closest to the victims and survivors of the gun violence, but also others around, including first responders, doctors, nurses and media personnel who see the horrific damage first-hand that is caused by gun violence. For doctors and nurses who treat the victims of these shootings, it can be a traumatic experience to witness the horrors and in several cases be the bearers of the tragic news to the loved ones of those who have died. For the media and first responders on the scene, it can also be acutely distressing to first hand witness the events unfold while also being on the line of duty. This can also cause PTSD, anxiety, trauma and even flashbacks.


When discussing the instances of mass gun violence, we most often hear statistics of fatalities and physical injuries, but what also needs to be addressed is how a barrage of such crimes shatters our sense of security - whether it is someone who has come in direct contact with the incident or have consumed these stories on the news or social media. Hearing of these stories as they break across various media platforms while being accompanied by distressing images and live telecasts can cause vicarious trauma to viewers. There is evidence to suggest that these incidents can also cause those who come across such stories to develop symptoms associated with trauma, PTSD, anxiety and depression even if they haven’t first-hand witnessed the incident. The impact of these repetitive attacks is magnified by the constant consumption of news and social media, particularly evident in younger generations and has led to many living in fear of the next mass shooting. This itself takes a big toll on Mental Health and wellbeing as living in this constant fear of gun violence can impact health, choices, and lifelong trajectory of children, young people, adults, and the collective community in serious and long-lasting ways.


In recent times, we have seen reports of gun violence and shootings plague the news and we have already examined how the impact often extends to individuals who live far outside of the affected area with no personal connections to the event. ​​From research conducted, we have seen that 9 out of 10 survivors reported experiencing trauma and that this trauma frequently affected their wellbeing and functioning. Additionally, two-thirds of the survivors also expressed a need for therapy and Mental Health support. But we have also seen that there is a vicarious trauma which is experienced as a result of gun violence and anyone who is struggling deserves support in the aftermath of such a gruesome event. There are a few things which can help from a psychological/ mental health perspective:

  • Focus on yourself and your self-care - it is imperative to understand that while it is common to feel a whole range of emotions during this time, know that some thoughts and emotions might need more patience from you to work through. Through this time, it is important to stay connected to your friends and family to avoid isolating yourself while also focusing on self-care. Look after your physical health, ensure you get enough sleep, eat well and find time to process your thoughts and emotions. You may choose to journal or use mindfulness-based activities as well.

  • Look out for those around you - There will be others around you who might be directly or indirectly affected by the event and might be having a hard time to cope. You can look out for them in terms of changes in their eating and sleeping habits, energy level, and mood along with regressed behaviours, expressing feelings of helplessness which can indicate that they might be struggling. You can point them in the direction of appropriate Mental Health support while reassuring them that they aren’t alone.

  • Limit exposure to Media - In our quest of being constantly informed and in the age of instant updates and social media, it is easy to get sucked into the news and end up in a pattern of doomscrolling. While it is important to be informed it is also important to take a break from the news from time to time while also monitoring your sources of news.

  • Reach out for help - Not everyone will cope in the same way from the trauma and if you find yourself struggling, know that you can reach out for help to a helpline, support group or a Mental Health professional.


While these are somethings which can be done on a psychological/ Mental Health perspective, there is also legislative action required to reduce the community violence. Additionally, the media too has a responsibility in their reporting of these stories. Responsible reporting can help reduce copycat behaviours while reducing the stigma around Mental Illness and educating the public. The aim should be on reducing the risk of future violence, mobilising support for the victims, being sensitive to the bereaved families, not prejudicing viewers about a certain community or Mental Illness, and not sensationalising the incident. When it comes to these cases of gun violence, we see that bluntly mental health to gun violence can stigmatize the former when in reality, those with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, but mass shootings are often incorrectly associated with psychiatric illnesses. This stigma can be dangerous as it not only comes as a punch in the gut to those living with mental health conditions, but it can discourage those with mental health conditions from seeking treatment that they so desperately need.


We need to remember that gun violence is a complex issues which needs the involvement of various stakeholders to address, but even then we cannot neglect the impact it has in shaping the lives of those who experience it, witness it, are bereaved by it or are living in fear of the next shooting. The trauma of gun violence sadly doesn’t end when the shooting stops and as we are repeatedly heartbroken by the stories of another mass shooting, we need to remember that we need to understand the Mental Health implication it can have on so many people, whether or not they have been present on the scene of the incident.


 

Written by: Vedica Podar


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May, 2022