Unveiling the Hidden Threat
Turning on the news in the morning, we viewers are often informed of yet another shooting in the United States. The U.S. has faced at least 202 mass shootings so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. There have been more mass shootings than days in 2023. Amid political debates over these issues, we often fail to recognize some of the hidden costs of gun violence.
Rather than debating gun control or the mental health issues related to that of the shooter, perhaps it is worthwhile to examine the mental health impact such shootings have on children and adolescents across America.
The Traumatic Impact of Gun Violence: The Price Youth Pay
In recent years, the United States has witnessed an alarming increase in rates of anxiety and depression among youth.
Anxiety disorders have become a prevalent mental health issue. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 3 adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders cut across all socioeconomic demographics – suburban, urban and rural. They affect those who are college bound and those entering the workforce. These statistics, combined with the rate of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers, have doubled in the past decade, leaving us with many concerning questions.
While it would be overly simplistic and naïve to imply there is merely a single factor that contributes to this surge in mental health issues in youth, exposure to gun violence and its ripple effects certainly contribute to this ongoing issue. Growing up in a world that feels unsafe and threatening likely contributes to increased anxiety and depression levels in youth. School systems have implemented “active shooter drills” and lockdown procedures to address the increase in school shooting events.
While these plans are meant to save lives in the event of an actual shooting, we should ask ourselves what impact they have on young people who are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally. Recent surveys suggest that a majority of teens now say they worry about a shooting happening at their school. Those concerns have been linked with elevated anxiety levels and fear among students.
For kids and teens, the ongoing threat of violence is ever-increasingly damaging the sense of well-being, safety and efficacy, which is essential for healthy development. What happens to a developing mind when young people are chronically distressed, always on high alert and constantly planning their escape route if violence breaks out at their school, grocery store or movie theatre?
Chronic stress and prolonged activation of the biological stress response can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse and depression well into the adult years. In the short term, stress can lead to physical problems, such as headaches, chronic pain, digestive issues and frequent trips to the doctor, with no identified underlying medical cause. Anxiety and other mental health stressors can interfere with the ability to focus and disrupt learning, causing school problems that can have lifelong consequences.
Direct exposure to gun violence can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition characterized by intrusive thoughts, nightmares and hypervigilance. In addition, indirect exposure, such as witnessing news coverage or knowing someone affected by gun violence, can also trigger anxiety and distress. Hearing about a mass shooting on the news or by peers talking about it at school can cause secondary trauma. Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the traumatic experiences of others.
The rising rates of anxiety and depression among youth, compounded by the constant barrage of mass shootings, are overwhelming and may lead to a sense of helplessness for parents. It should be noted that gun violence can be viewed as one variable contributing to the decline in the mental health of our youth.
Addressing gun violence and the mental health effects on youth requires a comprehensive approach involving legislative measures, community engagement and mental health support. Education systems must prioritize mental health by implementing comprehensive
programs that teach coping skills, emotional intelligence and stress management techniques. Congress and state legislature must continue to evaluate current gun laws and the widespread accessibility of assault rifles.
Regardless of these systemic issues, parents can also play a direct role in their children’s lives. Research indicates that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent and/or mediate and reverse the damaging effects of chronic stress. Parents who try to make their children feel safe can positively impact their well-being and anxiety.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that safety concerns are a basic need of all human beings, and providing such protection and support sets the stage for improved mental and psychological development.
Furthermore, a sense of safety can also open the doors for ongoing discussion between the child and parents regarding emotions. By providing a sense of security, actively listening to a child’s concerns and affirming and supporting their fears and their need for help, parents can support improved coping strategies for increased anxiety.
Processing any feelings these violent incidents bring about directly with parents is preferable to having the child process them independently and based on what they’ve heard on the news or from friends. Therefore, initiating conversations with children and teens after a school shooting incident (or other traumatic event) is essential, even if the child is not part of the affected community.
A parent who begins to see signs of anxiety or distress, such as avoidance, dramatic changes in social or academic behavior and/or panic attacks, may indicate a need for professional support. Parents can contact local licensed mental health providers for therapy and/ or counseling to support the emerging anxiety in their youth. These providers can assist with building of appropriate coping strategies for the chronic stress with which these children live.
Increased anxiety levels and other mental health issues in America’s youth require immediate attention. Dealing with gun violence and its psychological effects on our youth will require a comprehensive approach that addresses multiple factors, including gun access, gun regulations, mental health and early warning signs. Much work needs to be done; however, most would agree that prioritizing youth mental health is an important issue.
Providing safe spaces to discuss thoughts and feelings related to mass shootings can be one of the first steps to an improved future for our youth. To learn more, check clinicaltrials.gov for trials in your area.
Authors: Michelle Yetman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at the LSU Health Shreveport Children’s Center and a clinical associate professor of Rehabilitation Science for the LSUHS School of Allied Health Professions. Adam Blancher, Ph.D., is a clinical associate professor and counseling psychologist at LSU Health Shreveport School of Allied Health Professions.