Mass Gun Violence is Affecting My Mental Health

And it is likely affecting yours too

January 21, 2019

On an otherwise mundane Sunday, my partner and I found ourselves shopping at a chain mattress store in our Brooklyn neighborhood. We were the only two shoppers in the store when a man walked in, his right hand concealed beneath his jacket. He walked with purpose, passed the rows of mattresses to the back of the store, and asked frantically, “are you alone in here?”

I panicked. Wasn’t this exactly how it happens? Someone walks into an ordinary store (or theater, or school, or place of worship) and opens fire at random? I envisioned myself seeking refuge beneath the naked mattresses. Fight or flight kicked in, and I abruptly left the store in a panic. Afterward, I was both physically and emotionally drained. But there was no gun. There was no mass shooting.

I was just a pre-teen when 13 people were shot dead and 21 more were injured at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Since then, the United States has experienced an insurgence of mass shootings—we experience 25 times the gun homicide rate of other high-income nations, and the U.S. accounts for 42 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns. The United States has experienced 108 mass shootings since 1982, with the top three deadliest having occurred within the last two years.

Gun violence is far from a new concept for Americans, but because of the scale and typically arbitrary targets involved in mass shootings, there are no longer spaces where we feel safe—and this is having a profound effect on our mental health as a population. The impact of these repetitive attacks is magnified by the constant consumption of news and social media, particularly evident in younger generations. Many people live in fear of the next mass shooting— and this is taking a detrimental toll on the mental health and wellbeing of Americans today.

When discussing the issue of mass gun violence in America, we most often hear statistics of fatalities and physical injuries. But what the barrage of mass gun violence has done to our sense of security is detrimental—not only to those who have come in direct contact with it, but to those like me who have internalized the secondary trauma of mass shootings experienced through television and social media. While the psychological effects of large-scale acts of violence most acutely affect those directly involved, there is evidence to suggest that individuals develop similar symptoms– such as post-traumatic stress disorder– without having witnessed first-hand trauma. According to the American Psychological Association, 75 percent of school-aged individuals cite mass shootings in general as a major source of stress while 74 percent of their parents cite school shootings in particular as a significant source of stress. And this stress might not be just a fleeting feeling.

There is strong scientific evidence that chronic stress causes epigenetic changes, which have lasting effects on our health and behavior by altering the way our genes function. Chronic stress acts differently on the body than acute trauma: it accumulates over time and silently alters our DNA. Long-term exposure to stress has been linked with the development of mood disorders, depression, anxiety, and other persistent illnesses.

But it doesn’t stop there. Epigenetic changes to our genes are likely passed to our children, in the same way we inherit hair or eye color. Studies have shown that during pregnancy, a mother’s bodily responses to stress are passed on to the fetus, affecting a child’s brain development and their own ability to respond to stress after they are born.

In order to better understand and address the threat of mass gun violence to our mental health, we must have the opportunity to acquire data. Conservatives against gun control may argue that violent crime is down, and that the primary safety concerns with respect to guns are suicide and illegally owned handguns, but they overlook the widespread psychological damage caused by gun violence that affects nearly all Americans. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has made it nearly impossible for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct research on the health implications of gun violence. The 1996 Dickey Amendment—the product of NRA demands—states that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Rather than risk loss of funding, the CDC stopped conducting research on gun violence and health, altogether.

Without the participation of federally-funded organizations like the CDC, we must call upon philanthropists and charitable organizations to fund small research initiatives. With less bureaucracy to navigate, these privately funded programs can take more risks and often can make a greater impact in a shorter period of time. Our country desperately needs more effective gun regulations, but we need the data to prove it.

I know that I am not alone in playing out those worst-case scenarios involving myself as a random target of mass gun violence. A few months ago, thousands of concert-goers in Central Park turned into a dangerous stampede after a loud bang was erroneously perceived as a gunshot. The shift has been gradual, but our generation now exists in a heightened state of stress and anxiety, having profound long-term effects on us and generations to come. 

Emily Schenkein is a first-year MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences.

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