• Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review

The Effects of Gun Violence on Mental Health

Dinuk DeAlmeida and Renuk DeAlmeida, North Allegheny Senior High School, Wexford, Pennsylvania, USA


Summary

In light of recent mass shootings across the United States, effects on the mental health of communities and individuals who are exposed to gun violence must be evaluated. Studies have found that those who witness gun violence suffer higher levels of mental disorders such as psychological distress, depression, suicidal ideation, and/or psychotic experiences. Firearm homicide and violence have even further reaching consequences on children, as it impacts learning skills, emotional capacity, and behavior. These combined devastating effects perpetuate a seemingly endless cycle of gun violence in affected communities until substantial action is taken. Currently, the US is seeing some steps to mitigate firearm homicides through Congress and legislation to provide mental health support for individuals who experience gun violence. Communities are also being benefitted through increased education about firearm safety.


Effects of Gun Violence on Mental Health

Gun violence poses a massive threat to public health. In recent years, mass shootings have seen a significant spike in the United States. As of July 2022, at least 314 shootings had already occurred within the nation (Gall, 2022). A survey found that 58% of American adults have either been exposed to gun violence or know a loved one who has (Everytown Research and Policy, 2020). Additionally, the leading cause of death for Black males under 55 years old is through firearms; it is the second leading cause of death for Latino males under the age of 35 (The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, 2021). Such immense exposure to firearm homicide and violence takes an almost imperceptible yet dangerous toll on survivors and witnesses. Gun violence, especially those incidents that are lethal, has severe implications on public health. Consequently, it has far-reaching effects on communities, primarily in terms of mental health and development.


Studies have found that those who witness gun violence suffer higher levels of mental disorders such as psychological distress, depression, suicidal ideation, and/or psychotic experiences compared to those not exposed. These consequences occur due to the fear and sorrow for the loss of life as well as the emotional repercussions that accompany the situation. For example, according to a study by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, 31% of the 2,629 gun violence occurrences in the data set had at least one emergency department (ED) visit involving mental health in the 60 days following the shooting. The study also showed that children living within an eighth of a mile of a shooting had greater odds of having a mental health-related ED visit (Epps, 2022). Such a heavy burden on hospitals resulting from gun violence makes it difficult for healthcare providers to treat all individuals in need. Visits for injuries regarding firearms cost hospitals three times that of the average patient visit. Additionally, it costs hospitals $1 billion annually for injuries from gun violence (Barone, 2022). This financial strain on hospitals creates struggles in obtaining resources and supplies needed to treat all of their patients.


In addition, not all people involved in gun-related incidents seek healthcare support. Communities ravaged by shootings have caused residents to be fearful of leaving their houses due to concerns for their safety. Survivors of homicides are also vulnerable to even more mental conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A study focused on African American homicide survivors unveiled that PTSD occurred in 18% of these individuals, 53.7% were diagnosed with depression and 44.4% had complicated grief. Both depression and grief can cause more intense feelings of anger, sadness, and detachment from others, all of which increase an individual’s likelihood of committing suicide. These feelings, namely anger, can sometimes lead to individuals becoming aggressors themselves (Rheingold & Williams, 2015). A study of 500 inner-city black youth in Virginia reported that one of the best ways to predict who will engage in gun violence is to focus on those who have previously been exposed to gun violence (McGee, n.d.). By seeking to resolve gun violence, the endless cycle of gun incidents–as well as the occurrence of mental damages–can be reduced.


In addition to preventing deaths and mental health issues, limiting gun violence is important because it also helps to achieve health equity. Health equity allows all people, regardless of social, economic, or racial factors, to achieve maximum health potential by accessing high quality and affordable healthcare (Baciu, 2017). However, Black Americans are currently ten times more likely to be victims of firearm murders than whites, resulting in a significant disparity. It is estimated that inequities in healthcare cost the United States $320 billion in spending annually. If these problems continue, it could cost up to $1 trillion by 2040, which emphasizes one of the reasons for why gun violence is a pressing issue that needs addressing (Bhatt, 2022).


Another negative repercussion of gun violence is its effect on developmental issues. Youth exposed to such violence often experience diminished learning skills, inhibited brain development, increased aggression, and emotional distress. (Garbino, 2022). Furthermore, the combination of skill deficits and emotional overload contributes to children imitating and embracing behaviors of those around them, including violence. As a result, this population threatens to continue the cycle of gun violence which will only worsen until action is taken (Swoveland & Collins, 2020).


Fortunately, the US Congress is finally recognizing the problem of school shootings as demonstrated by its passage of a more restrictive gun reform bill. The new bill includes laws for increased mental health services following a shooting: school support, ways to prevent shootings, programs for substance abuse, and suicide prevention interventions (National Public Radio, 2022). The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has also started a program called ShootSafe; its goals are to increase knowledge of the dangers of firearms, develop new prevention methods, and determine the usefulness of strategies to keep communities safe from injuries and deaths related to shootings (Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, 2021). Gun violence is becoming an increasingly pressing issue. As a result, it is imperative that the government and all interested individuals implement more initiatives to solve this problem.

References