Mass shootings take a toll on Americans' mental health, even from a distance, experts say
When mass shootings make headlines, you may feel a range of emotions, from anxiety to fear or even a sense of numbness over yet another tragedy. You're not alone.
Experts say 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 time and time again on your phone or on the headlines can really impact you in ways that I don't think we knew before to be as impactful. It's so 'in our face' all the time and we have access to so much footage, so many pictures, so many videos, so many accounts that we're ingesting it in ways that's really unhealthy for us," says Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson, a psychologist and fellow at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
There have already been over 230 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive — defined as incidents with four or more people shot, not including the attacker. Hearing about one tragic event after another "certainly does impact somebody's mental health or even just their emotions in the moment," says Dr. Sydney Timmer-Murillo, a psychologist and post-doctoral fellow in trauma and health psychology at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
"If you're looking at your local news or hearing of those mass shootings, that can elevate your worry that that might impact you, your loved one or your community," she says.
Any type of shooting can be "incredibly distressing, even if you're not present" 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 experience anger after collective trauma and they can go through some of the same challenges following the event as those who are directly involved," he says. That can include difficulties returning to normal routines, trouble sleeping and increased feelings of fear, emptiness and more. Some may not even recognize they've been traumatized, he adds.
"An entire generation... with increased mental health problems"
A 2019 American Psychological Association survey found that a third of American adults say fear of a mass shooting prevents them from going to some public places or events.
Anderson says we can't forget about how living in a nation beset by gun violence affects kids, either.
"When we're thinking about young people and how we're asking them to prepare for mass shootings in schools, or we're asking them to learn how to create tourniquets for classmates and teachers, when we're putting the burden and onus on young people, we can't help but to expect that there's going to be greater mental strain," she says. "We're going to create an entire generation of people with increased mental health problems."
As many have seen over the past years with the pandemic straining people's mental health, chronic stress can create a longer list of both mental and physical problems. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress can put you at increased risk for things like high blood pressure, sleep problems and more,
"We're not negating what adults are going through, but what happens to a child's brain relative to an adult is that when you're experiencing, witnessing and being exposed to the traumatic event, that actually can reshape the way that your brain grows, functions, operates," Anderson says.
With young people in America already experiencing a mental health crisis, gun violence worries add another troubling layer.
"There's this cumulative burden when one is exposed to violence and experiences violence. We also know that the more traumatic experiences that one carries in childhood that absolutely carries through the lifespan," Timmer-Murillo says. "Those things in turn can impact how they trust other people or... seek out support from others. There really is this cyclical effect of the amount of trauma you experienced and then how it can impact you."
And while schools tend to react to stories around school shootings or violent events with very visible security measures, Heinze says it needs to be accompanied by building a positive school climate and explanations for why these things are in place.
"Once we're pairing all of those things together and a comprehensive school safety strategy, that can be a more developmentally appropriate way to be engaging with students," he says.
Because if schools implement, for example, metal detectors or security cameras without having a conversation, students notice, Heinze says, "and they record higher levels of fear that there could be a shooting (or say) they feel less safe, and this is particularly true for non-majority students."
Heinze also notes that when we're thinking about violence in schools, mass shootings are only the most extreme example. Far more common is interpersonal violence between students, in-person and online bullying, and "unseen violence," which is how he describes undiagnosed depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges students are dealing with.
"We really need to be thinking about how mental health is playing out within our student population, because that makes up the base of that pyramid of violence that's occurring in schools."
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Do other factors play a role?
Some communities feel the impact more acutely than others.
"When people live in communities that already experience a high amount of gun violence, those individuals are particularly impacted," Timmer-Murillo says. "We know from the research that the more people are exposed to violence that they see it in their community, if they hear about it or if they witness it, then that can impact one's mental health. And we especially see an increase in anxiety or fear that you might also be impacted."
Timmer-Murillo says this speaks to the larger issue of gun violence disparities in our country.
"Individuals who come from socioeconomic disadvantage or racial and ethnic minoritized individuals, these individuals are more likely to live in communities that are disadvantaged and that experience more community violence. And so in turn, they're also more likely to be impacted by violence, even if they aren't the direct recipient."
A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Black (32%) and Hispanic adults (33%) were a little more than three times more likely to report worrying daily or almost daily that a family member will become a victim of gun violence than White adults (10%).
While news of a mass casualty event may be salient for everyone, Heinze notes those types of incidents actually make up a small percentage of gun violence.
"About 55% percent of firearm-related deaths are from suicide and self-directed violence, about 40% are homicide, and that would include interpersonal violence, intimate partner violence. And then about 5% would be things like unintentional deaths, (such as) a child accessing a firearm."
Even if you or your loved ones aren't the ones directly experiencing it, you may feel the ripple effects.
"If you are hearing gun shots in the distance, if you are seeing sirens and reactions, if you're seeing newspapers every other day that have some of these headlines, I can certainly imagine that it can have a lasting impact on your mental health," Heinze says.
How to cope with gun violence anxieties
Timmer-Murillo says she encourages people to reach out to loved ones or mental health professionals and talk about emotions that may surface in response to gun violence.
"Often we feel that anxiety or fear, and what that fear and anxiety tells us is to retreat or isolate or avoid — but those things maintain poor mental health," Timmer-Murillo says. "When we avoid (and) isolate, we aren't getting the support we need... so the more we can challenge that desire to avoid or withdraw, the better your outcome will be."
When it feels like there is so much outside of our control, it can also be helpful to take action in a way that feels meaningful for you.
Timmer-Murillo explains this can look like connecting to others, taking steps towards change, or simply looking inward.
"If we focus in on what we have control over, which is our behaviors, our actions, we can stay centered in what's most important to us," she explains.
Anderson hopes the situation can move into solutions for what's causing the need for coping mechanisms in the first place.
"Coping is such a tough word in this case, because we're asking the people who are being burdened with the social problem to be the ones to deal with it, when really there are reforms that can be put in place so that the problem of gun violence is not an issue for these young people," she says. "That's what I would hope we could frame this as — rather than asking individuals or families or communities to cope with this wave of gun violence that we're seeing, that we could control the guns."
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