The Mental Toll of Gun Violence

The Mental Toll of Gun Violence

Guns are capable of inflicting two types of damage – physical and mental. Though to take someone’s life is far worse than any other effect a gun can have, that does not mean that we should not think about how gun violence can psychologically affect those near it and the rest of the nation. According to the New York Times, survivors and families and neighbors of victims can experience intense post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, self-harm, and major depressive disorders in the aftermath of a shooting. Stress symptoms in those directly affected by gun violence typically wane over time, but in some cases PTSD can be permanent. Symptoms include insomnia, emotional numbness, agitation, unease, flashbacks, and avoidance of triggering situations, and occur in both children and adults. One study found that youth living near the site of a shooting were more likely to visit the emergency room for their mental health, and the odds increased the closer they lived to the site. Symptoms included anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, and self-harm. Another study found that Los Angeles high school students who lived near the site of another shooting were exhibiting PTSD and depression symptoms. Again, severity scaled with proximity to the shooting, and Black and Latino people suffered the most. However, stress is not limited to the community where the shooting occurred – the unpredictability and spontaneity of gun violence produce uncertainty, distrust, and despair in the general population. A 2018 survey found that most Americans age 15-72 said that mass shootings were major sources of stress for them. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of research on this subject, largely due to the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal money to research gun control. Gun violence can also have the opposite effect on the general public – it can cause desensitization to violence and emotional detachment. This is a phenomenon known as psychic numbing, and, paradoxically, it occurs when people consider numerous victims rather than a few. This is because seeing numbers deactivates our emotional instincts, and facing the insurmountable problem of large-scale gun violence is discouraging and unpleasant, so we disengage.

First of all, the Dickey Amendment is absurd – why should there be a law prohibiting medical research? Science never has a goal; if it is found that gun violence has adverse consequences on mental health, it is not because the researchers wanted it to be so, but simply because it is a fact. Nor should mental health research in particular be ignored, because mental health and physical health carry equal weight for any person. Either way, there is not much else to say here. It is universally, implicitly established that gun violence is bad, and the mental health ramifications provide only another known reason for controlling it, if there weren’t enough reasons already. Just like war, social media, politics, and climate change (all of which I’ve written about), gun violence affects our overall happiness, regardless of personal beliefs.


I'm a high school student dedicated to stimulating conversation around mental health.

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