How mass shootings are impacting people’s mental health

A 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association found that a majority of adults in the US are stressed about mass shootings.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — So far in 2022 alone, mass shootings have occurred in all kinds of places: a supermarket, elementary school and Fourth of July parade.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 300 mass shootings have happened so far this year. The nonprofit defines a mass shooting as an incident of four or more shot and killed, not including the shooter.

“Violence is something that is impacting all communities… We see that in rural settings; we see that in urban settings; we see it across the socioeconomic spectrum,” said Marizen Ramirez, a professor in the Division of Environmental Health and Sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and an injury and violence prevention epidemiologist.

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A 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that a majority of adults in the US are stressed about mass shootings with one-third of adults saying it stops them from going to certain places and events.

Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the APA, said just being a witness to this level of trauma can have a significant impact on our levels of stress. When unmanaged, it can impact physical and emotional well-being and lead to everything from increased blood pressure and muscle tension to anxiety and depression.

“It’s a community experience and we’re seeing that,” Ramirez said. “We are so connected through social media. That’s another piece of this is that as we’re seeing the violence that occurs on the television, on social media, that we know that that witnessing of violence can have some significant impacts. It can trigger some mental health concerns; it can lead to fear of safety.”

According to a 2019 study, 41% of youth reported ever seeing or hearing gun violence. Among those exposed, half of them took protective action to keep themselves safe, and 58% reported being very or extremely afraid, sad or upset as a result of indirect gun violence.

“Seeing, witnessing, hearing shots, and firearm violence, is under a larger umbrella term called adverse childhood experiences and these are traumatic events that occur in childhood. They include anything from abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, but most recently it also includes community level experiences and that includes witnessing violence,” Ramirez explained.

These experiences can lead to toxic stress in kids.

“I do some work in schools and what we see often is that traumatic stress actually manifests in terms of academic performance. So poor performance in schools, children have difficulty concentrating at schools… difficulty in forming relationships in which the sense of fear and safety really impact their ability to trust adults and peers. Then finally, what we also see is inappropriate behaviors in the classroom,” Ramirez said.

Despite all this, a New York Times report said there is not a lot of data out there on what gun violence does to our collective mental health.

In June, CEOs of 10 Minnesota health systems declared gun violence as a public health crisis. They are collaborating to seek solutions.

RELATED: State health care systems declare gun violence a public health emergency

“Those mental health impacts are so critical and we want to intervene on them as well through things like trauma-informed care, community engagement, as well as policies that we know are effective in helping reduce firearm violence,” Ramirez said.

Wright said it is important to stay informed but people should give themselves permission to take breaks from social media and the news. She recommends doing something that is self-soothing such as taking a walk. Wright said it’s all about engaging in behaviors that are going to build resilience and protect a person’s emotional well-being.

If you or someone you know is facing a mental health crisis, there is help available from the following resources:

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