Gun Violence and Its Impact on Mental Health

America has the highest gun ownership in the world, and in 2022, there were 647 mass shootings across the country. With such an unbelievably high number, how many lives are mentally rocked by the toll of gun violence?

Key takeaways:

Half of 2023 has passed, and within only six months, there have been more than 200 mass shootings across the U.S., per the Gun Violence Archive.

Gun violence is a severe nationwide issue, and media outlets have been full of mass shooting coverage. In 2021, a Oxford High School shooting killed four people and injured seven others after a 15-year-old student shot several students and teachers. On May 24, 2022, 19 children from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, were killed by one of the most fatal shootings in the state.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint whether acts of gun violence result from mental illness, survivors of such occurrences may experience mental health issues, according to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.

Depression, anxiety, trauma, PTSD, intrusive thoughts, sleep issues, and personality changes are just a few of the mental health repercussions that can result from gun violence.

Furthermore, the trauma caused by gun violence may spread across the community beyond those who were shot or wounded. Adverse mental health consequences can affect everyone, including family members, friends, neighbors, communities, first responders, and healthcare professionals.

About one in five Americans have a mental health condition diagnosed in a year, and one in 25 have a major mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

The fact that mental illness is not the root of gun violence must be well understood compared to other nations; the U.S. has equal rates of mental illness but far greater rates of gun violence. In comparison to other high-income countries, the U.S. has a firearm homicide rate that is about 25 times higher and a firearm suicide rate that is almost 10 times higher.

Examining the nation to other high-income countries, the overall rate of gun fatalities is 11.4 times greater in the U.S. Access to guns is easy. An October 2020 Gallup survey revealed that approximately 44% of the U.S. has a gun in their household, with around 33% owning guns personally.

Several risk factors might contribute to violence, and mental illness alone is extremely seldom the root reason. The only cause of interpersonal violence in the U.S. is just 4% of mental illness. Those who suffer from mental illness are more likely to become interpersonal violence victims than commit violent acts themselves.

In a similar vein, suicide has many causes. Even though mental disease, particularly depression, increases the risk of suicide, not everyone who contemplates suicide or dies by suicide has a mental illness.

According to estimates, more than half of all suicide victims were undiagnosed due to mental illness at their deaths. Even less likely to get a diagnosis are people who commit suicide with a firearm.

With such high numbers of shootings and constant fear, many live with the anxiety that an unfortunate event can happen to anyone at any time. Julie H, a college student in New York City, says she fears going out in public because of the country's right to bear arms.

I don't even ride the subway anymore. I run everywhere because who knows what's going to happen? Anyone can buy and carry a gun everywhere. I'm terrified and anxious to leave my apartment, and I panic whenever someone approaches me or I hear even the slightest noise.

- Julie H

In 2022, there were about 100 deaths and injuries from firearms daily. Jeanae M. Hopgood, a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Pennsylvania, says exposure to violent content impacts the brain and one's ability to discern between fiction and reality. It's one thing to see violence happening in films and television. Still, it's a different beast when you're directly or indirectly, such as through news and media, seeing violence happening in everyday settings that one would ordinarily deem safe, for example, churches, malls, movie theaters, schools, or in H's case, the subway.

She says: "Consistent exposure to violence in this way puts the body and mind in a state of anxiety and fear, which can manifest socially and somatically. In terms of mental health, anxiety disorders, avoidance of highly populated areas, avoidance of highly publicized social events, etc., are common ways mental and social health is impacted."

What can we do to protect individuals from fear and anxiety?

"Protecting individuals from fear and anxiety has a lot to do with first acknowledging what is and is not safe. Not based on political or religious views but on factual evidence," says Hopgood.

After six individuals died and thirteen were seriously injured in a mass shooting in Tucson, now known as the 2011 Tucson shooting, former President Barack Obama said: "We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future."

This mentality goes beyond politics. Gun violence is a factual occurrence in our country, what are we doing to stop it?

"A nation cannot reduce fear and anxiety for its people without addressing the systems, such as laws and practices, that maintain the danger," says Hopgood. "Once people admit and agree that this is an issue, they can decide on measures to put in place that both respect freedom and maintain overall safety for citizens."

She says this denial and blame that is currently happening only moves us farther and farther from solutions.

Can you get PTSD from witnessing gun violence or constantly hearing about it on the news?

Hopgood says PTSD is a specific disorder with a particular set of criteria needed to qualify as a diagnosis. It is not diagnosed frivolously and usually requires direct traumatic event experience as an origin point.

One can have an acute stress response or be overstimulated by violent content coupled with the awareness that their safety has been compromised. That can lead to things like disrupted sleep, intrusive thoughts or memories of what was viewed, and even fear of specific environments, but I'd be hesitant to say that constantly hearing about it on the news can cause PTSD. Witnessing it directly (i.e., being involved in an active shooter situation) is a different ballgame.

- Hopgood

Whether it's creating a gun safety culture or providing more mental health services to those who have been impacted, gun violence is a severe issue in the U.S., and it's important to stay vigilant to prevent these tragedies from happening.

In addition to enacting innovative gun legislation and funding research on gun violence by different organizations, community healing is essential.

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