Trigger Warning: Below we discuss some difficult and disturbing topics that can be triggering for some people. If you’re struggling, know that help is available. Don’t wait to reach out if you or someone you love is in a crisis and needs immediate support.
The reality of mass shootings is impacting mental health in ways we’ve not seen before in the United States. It’s possible that life has never been more stressful for children, school employees, and families across the nation. The mass shooting in Uvalde at the end of May 2022 took 21 lives, 19 of them young children, and 16 more were seriously injured.
Unfortunately — and tragically — Uvalde was hardly an isolated incident. According to Education Week’s school shooting tracker (Yes. We have a tracker), there have been 27 school shootings in the first 5 months of 2022 alone in the United States. Furthermore, gun violence is happening in BIPOC communities and other everyday places.
The psychological effects of mass shootings are weighing on us all. When it comes to mental health, mass shootings take a toll, and not just on those directly involved. What effects are these tragedies of mass violence having on us? Turns out, ones that are pretty significant and have led to a big mental health problem.
Societal Effects of Mass Shootings
To fully comprehend how mass shootings affect society, it’s important to look at the psychological impacts we’re seeing, both on victims, as well as on those of us who are continually inundated with the news of and exposure to every shooting that happens.
It’s important we point out, it’s not just the people directly impacted by these shootings who are suffering. The reality for each of us — from the survivor to the horrified witness watching coverage from the safety of their own home — is daunting, overwhelming, and heartbreaking.
As we all learn to navigate it each time, the near-constant reporting of every shooting, and the next, and the next, and…it feels unending, like we can’t even get through just one day without hearing of another mass shooting. In short, it’s exhausting.
“Every time a mass shooting hits a community, the general public becomes more terrified. Anytime fear drives a community, people tend to react with retraction, regression, and isolation which are all the things that spike mental illness.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC
Children, parents, teachers, and people from every corner of the country understandably feel anxious about the possibility of the next time being their school, their community, their friends, and loved ones.
The Parental Fear & Anxiety of Sending Kids to School
In many ways, being a parent has always been terrifying — and that’s without the fear of gun violence that’s become more commonplace than ever before.
“With fear driving the majority of how our communities feel, parents are beginning to question whether the pros (socialization, routine, and structure) outweigh the cons (risk of trauma and death). When such extreme cons are put on the table, parents look for other options, which can be less than ideal and not in the best interest of the student.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC
Parents have felt anxious about sending their kids off to school forever. It’s an age-old emotion, as we grapple with cutting those apron strings just a little bit more each year. However, with school shootings continuing to happen, parents are more on edge than ever.
Our anxiety has been wildly amplified now, though, with fear of the unthinkable potentially breaching the steps at our child’s school. With every new devastating story, every new pang of shock and tragedy, every time we have to think and process…again?!, it gets more and more difficult to comprehend the world we’re living in. If you struggle with this fear and feel you need to prepare your children, learn how to talk to your child about mass shootings.
The Impact on Students
The psychological effects of mass shootings on students can largely depend on the reactions of parents and other adults around them.
We talk a lot about limiting social media and news of terrible tragedies, and this is true, especially in the case of school shootings. The 24-7 news cycle can be damaging to children’s psyches and should be monitored. Unfortunately, we can’t shelter them from all of it. Most kids have heard about gun violence from a friend, in class, or through an article on the Internet.
There are several common, normal, and even somewhat healthy, reactions children might have as they try to process the traumatic events of mass violence. According to Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, a child psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University, children commonly respond to news of a school shooting with:
“When basic needs are unmet (feelings of safety), there is very little learning that can take place. Instead of using valuable brain space for learning, ruminating, extreme feelings of anxiety, and depression creep in instead, which can be challenging to navigate independently.”
The Impact on BIPOC Communities
It’s clear that this new normal is devastating at all levels, but it’s becoming increasingly important that we look more in-depth at how mass shootings affect society, particularly in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.
Recent shootings — at a Buffalo NY market and in Southern California’s Geneva Presbyterian Church — were both racially motivated. The targeted racial violence left a combined 11 people dead and 8 more injured.
The ripple effect of hate crimes like these is crippling BIPOC communities, as fear for their safety seeps into even the mundane aspects of life. Simple things, like shopping for food and attending a place of worship, can induce anxiety as they have to face the possibility of what if…
The fear of a violent crime in everyday places can be paralyzing.
Experiencing a mass shooting can have life-long, devastating repercussions on survivors. It’s an extreme form of trauma, one that can result in decades of mental health implications.
Survivors of trauma from a violent crime can end up with immediate reactions, such as:
- Feeling agitated
- Feeling numb or detached
“Guilt and shame can often be a part of survivor trauma. Not only do they have their own fear that something might be reoccurring, but they also ask themselves why they lived when other people gave their lives. This line of questioning due to survivor’s guilt can be all-consuming and take them away from other important categories of their lives.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC
Although other responses can develop later, as the aftermath of their experience sinks in and begins to weigh on them. In terms of mental health, mass shootings can result in survivors experiencing conditions like:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Shootings can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and other mood disorders.
- Reactivation of PTSD: Further research shows the potential for retraumatization is extremely high in populations that witness very traumatic experiences.
- Acute stress disorder: Similar to PTSD, acute stress disorder happens after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Typically, symptoms occur within 4 weeks of the trauma and can last anywhere from a few days to around 1 month. It’s best to keep an eye out for the signs of acute stress disorder in the people in your life.
- Self-esteem issues: Some research suggests a link between how severe PTSD is and how low self-esteem may become.
- Emotion regulation difficulty: Psychological trauma can trigger emotional dysregulation that causes a lasting inability to control emotional responses. It’s important to note that emotional dysregulation is also associated with anxiety and depression.
- Interpersonal relationship struggles: Severe trauma can lead to an inability to establish and maintain healthy relationships in the future.
- Depression: Trauma has long been linked to depression, and newer research further implicates the risk of depression, especially among adolescents, who experience intense interpersonal trauma.
How We Can Collectively Protect Our Mental Health
While individually we don’t have much power over the impact on mental health mass shootings have, collectively, we have the ability to protect ourselves and others. First, we can talk to each other. Being open and honest about the importance of nurturing our mental health is step one.
The sooner we can destigmatize the concept of being mentally healthy, the more we can do to ensure everyone has appropriate access to mental healthcare.
As a society, we take physical health seriously. We take our children to the doctor for regular checkups. We go to annual appointments as adults. We have screenings at certain ages to catch serious diseases early. We eat well and get exercise. Yet when it comes to our mental health, we often aren’t as diligent. Simply put, we need to put more emphasis on the importance of mental health care.
Being more open about our own mental health is just part of it. We desperately need to cultivate a society that understands and values the mental health of others. While the link between mental health and mass shootings remains a hot-button debate topic, one thing is clear: we just don’t do enough to make mental health services a priority in this country.
If we learn nothing else from recent, horrifying events of mass gun violence, let us learn that help is available and that we should encourage each other to ask for it. Acknowledging you need help is a sign of strength, not something to be ashamed of. If you find yourself struggling with your mental health after an event of mass violence, consider reaching out to a licensed mental health professional either in-person or through online therapy.
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