As America struggles to deal with gun violence and its effect on mental health, experts warn that 'the trauma could be lifelong'

While mental health of the families dealing with gun violence forms an important part of the narrative another question that arises is regarding the motive of the violence in the first place.


                            As America struggles to deal with gun violence and its effect on mental health, experts warn that 'the trauma could be lifelong'

Mass shootings on American soil were something that happened very rarely until the 2000s rolled in. It all began on September 6, 1949, with a shooting in Camden, New Jersey, that took the lives of 13 including three children. The shooter in this incident, Howard Barton Unruh, was 28-years-old at the time and will be forever remembered as the man responsible for a crime that is referred to as the "Walk of Death". He was found to be criminally insane and imprisoned for 60 years. Unruh died at the age of 88 in 2009 after a lengthy period of illness. 

This was the beginning of a phenomenon that the people of America are unfortunately all too familiar with in the present. The one that everyone remembers, that many recent shooters have identified as their inspiration for going on their rampages, is the Columbine High School shooting from 1999. 

View of damage to the west entryway to Columbine High School where teenage gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered the school April 20, 1999, in Littleton, CO (Source: Jefferson County Sheriff via Getty Images)

Many of the shooters from the incidents that have taken place in the 2000s, the most recent one being the May 31 Virginia Beach shooting, have problems that either stem from a troubled past or other factors. There are multiple reasons which experts have given for what causes these shooters to go on rampages but no one clearly knows for sure. The ones that suffer at the end of the day are the families of both the shooter(s) and the victims. This is discounting the mental health side effects that the entire community faces.

When it comes to the psychological impact these incidents have on the community, particularly the loved ones of both victims and perpetrators, Dr. Peter Langman, a private practice clinical psychologist, author, and lecturer, tells MEA World Wide (MEAWW): "The trauma can be lifelong." There are also various factors to consider when looking into how mass shootings affect people mentally. These include "people's emotional stability and personality before the attack, proximity to the attack, whether they or loved ones were wounded vs. killed, and presence of support systems after the attack," Dr. Langman added.

Dr. Simone Lambert, President of American Counseling Association (ACA), told us that the families of the victims will go through a sustained period of grief that will be intensified by the sudden violent nature of an incident. She said: "Individuals involved may experience a wide range of trauma responses including distractibility, difficulty focusing, dwelling on the event, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression."

A memorial honoring the victims of the June 1 Virginia Beach shooting stands near the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on June 5, 2019, in Virginia Beach, Virginia (Source: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Even though these type of responses are normal after such traumatic experiences, Dr. Lambert stressed that it may be wiser to seek the help of a professional counselor if the responses become problematic to carry on for too long. She also said that the families of the victims in these cases, as well as members of the community in which a mass shooting occurred, may end up being "thrust into a role of advocacy", as was the case with student survivors from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

When it comes to the families of the perpetrators responsible for causing all this trauma, they will probably end up experiencing shame, disbelief, sadness, and guilt. The families may also end up being the victims of targeted attacks themselves and will forever be blamed for the actions of one member of their family. 

Students from area high schools participated in the event to mark the one-year anniversary of a nationwide gun-violence walkout protest that was prompted by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Survivors of such attacks keep reliving the day of the attack every time they watch coverage of the incident and try to find answers. Dr. Lambert said: "What we do know is that the intense media coverage at one of the most difficult time of a survivor or family members’ lives can extend and magnify the grief process." Dr. Gerard Lawson, former president of the ACA and author of many published articles that focus on trauma and mass shootings, also contributed to some the discussion with MEAWW.

He added: "This is especially true on anniversary dates of shootings or when media reach out to families who experienced such a loss twenty years ago, in response to a current incident. The families will often say that they relive the day of their own tragic loss each time they hear of another mass shooting.

While mental health of the families dealing with gun violence forms an important part of the narrative another question that arises is regarding the motive of the violence in the first place. The arguments about gun ownership and the aftermath of attacks turning into a public health crisis also require to be addressed. 

In a 2015 paper by Sarah Lowe and Sandro Galea, titled "The Mental Health Consequences of Mass Shootings", it was stated that mass shooting episodes have become more frequent in recent years. To put this into perspective, researchers at Texas State University identified 84 different episodes in the country that took place between 2000 and 2010 and noted that there was a trend in the frequency of such incidents rising over time.

Dr. Bradley White of the University of Alabama told MEAWW: "While motives for committing gun violence vary, the authors of a recent article published in Preventive Medicine, Lu and Temple, suggest that access to firearms and certain behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, domestic violence) and dispositions (anger, hostility) increase the likelihood of committing gun violence, whereas most mental health variables are not related to increase risk." 

Aside from this increase in shootings over time, certain events have held a strangely high number of fatalities and injuries. Examples of this cited in the paper are "33 fatalities and 23 injuries in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, 12 fatalities and 58 injuries in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, and 28 fatalities and 2 injuries in the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut". 

White added that the findings in this particular study suggested that restricting gun ownership on the country based on mental illness will not be effective. Dr. White added: "The authors also found that gun access, prior gun carrying, and impulsivity all predicted gun carrying, which has previously been found to be associated with gun violence victimization."

The Lowe and Galea paper has suggested from research that "exposure to assaultive violence, or learning that a close friend or loved one has faced such exposure, is associated with an increased incidence of a range of negative mental health outcomes, among them posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression".    

Mourners participate in a candlelight vigil on Virginia Tech's Day of Remembrance one year after 32 people killed were by Cho Seung-Hui April 16, 2008, in Blacksburg, Virginia (Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Advise that was given by the ACA is that lawmakers and citizens have to actively discuss gun violence and the trauma attached to it in terms of a public health crisis. Dr. Lambert concluded: "The fabric of our society and the lack of our perceived safety to attend school, universities, places of worship, entertainment venues, and work has taken a toll on us all. It is both the responsibility of the official and the constituents to take a proactive approach to finding informed solutions that will deter gun violence and other trauma-related concerns."

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