Does gun violence affect the mental health of American children? This question has the same answer as most questions about child and adolescent development: it depends. Rarely does a simple cause-and-effect relationship apply to all children to the same extent, and the same exposures can have opposite effects on different children. Such variability is a core truth of the “ecological perspective” on child and adolescent development. But from this perspective, examining the effects of gun violence on youth mental health highlights two issues among many that confront American society: traumatic responses in children directly exposed to gun violence and the contamination of their consciences. young people, especially those with mental seriousness. health problems.
Witnessing gun violence is clearly traumatic and can lead first to an acute stress reaction and then to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But the biggest and most important social story is post-traumatic stress development: How do children and adolescents develop after trauma? Not surprisingly, the answer is the same: it depends.
In perhaps 85 to 90% of cases, the mental health consequences of a single traumatic incident resolve, usually within a year. That’s good news for kids for whom gun violence is a terrible aberration, a terribly bad day in a generally safe and supportive life. The small percentage of children or adolescents who experience long-term damage from a single incident of traumatic violence tend to be those whose lives were previously disrupted. Many, if not most, of these single incidents of gun violence are front-page shootings, and of course they can indirectly traumatize large numbers of young people as images of the killing are etched in their minds. fueled by social media. But these incidents do not account for the majority of gun violence trauma experienced directly by American children and adolescents. This violence occurs in a cluster of neighborhoods, where it often becomes a regular feature of daily life—chronic, multiple-incident trauma rather than acute, single-incident trauma.
Having served as a psychological expert in homicide cases for 30 years, I have witnessed the challenges faced by such chronically traumatized youth. They are unlike children and teenagers who have just had a bad day caused by gun violence, who are usually inundated with “psychological first aid” and therapeutic interventions. Rarely do youth in “war zone” neighborhoods receive substantial mental health support—most importantly, trauma-informed psychotherapy—as they undergo the development of post-traumatic stress. They are largely left on their own, and any “reassurance therapy” is unreliable: it’s no good telling them “It’s okay, things are back to normal,” because “normal” is the problem. I often ask the young people I interview in jails and prisons how many 8-year-olds would estimate they witnessed a shooting; the typical response is along the lines of “Everyone? The majority? 80%?” although the actual percentage is more than 10%.
Youth for whom such exposure is the norm are likely to develop a variety of problems from both experiencing and normalizing the trauma associated with gun violence. In their 1999 analysis of trauma outcomes, Solomon and Heide reported that beyond “normal” PTSD, chronic trauma produces “poor self-esteem/self-concept,” “interpersonal distrust,” “feelings of shame,” and “dependency.”1 These are important developmental issues in themselves. But I have found it
Although researchers such as Sampson have reported finding resilience and even “thriving” in poor and marginalized communities in cities such as Chicago,2 a study conducted in Chicago by Bell and Jenkins found that in neighborhoods where community violence flourished, 63% of elementary school children reported witnessing a shooting.3 Their level of exposure, in other words, was the same as in Lebanon and among Palestinian children during the peak years of political violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—hence the characterization of these American neighborhoods as war zones. Such high exposure results in a worldview in which community violence is normal. But this normalization can lead to hypersensitivity to threat and justification for preemptive strike—what I’ve called the war zone mentality.
Through this process, traumatized youth (mainly boys) become “child soldiers”. The broader context in their communities, which often includes poverty, racism, cultural support for extreme corporal punishment (beating children), and a history of armed street gangs, disproportionately predisposes them to engage in gun violence themselves . They are often drawn to gangs, at least in part to compensate for “poor self-esteem/self-concept,” “interpersonal distrust,” “feelings of shame,” and “addiction” that arise from untreated chronic trauma. Additionally, they are disproportionately likely to face these toxic social communities without the benefit of strong, positive male role models, and they often report (to me and others) that they were drawn to gangs because they sought a sense of family acceptance. was found missing at home. A young man who was in prison facing murder charges told me, “Until I was 14, I had never met anyone who had a father living at home.”
Jivan’s 2018 analysis of violent and socially disaffected behavior in marginalized communities around the world concludes that where fathers are typically absent, sons are at increased risk from any toxic social influence in their environment.4 The trauma of gun violence is central to the developmental pathway that leads to the next generation of gun violence.
When it comes to contamination of consciousness, I had the opportunity to speak with one actual and two potential attackers at school. I was struck by how these psychologically and socially vulnerable boys were informed by the scripts provided by media accounts of other school shootings—especially the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. They studied Columbine as a kind of primer on what to do when you’re a troubled, angry, sad teenager in a country that gives you ready access to deadly weapons. They are not alone.
Teenagers are especially vulnerable to something called the “audience effect”: teenagers tend to see themselves as if they were in a play and their peers were the audience (or sometimes other actors). This phenomenon predates internet-based social media, but is extremely visible today, as many mass murderers now post before they kill. Such a “killer leak” has long been seen with young killers. It’s part of the show – a quintessentially American show. In the troubled minds of these teenagers, if anger and sadness are the question, gun violence is the answer.
An anthropological investigation illuminates the severity of this problem. People diagnosed with schizophrenia are generally no more violent than other Americans, and in fact are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. However, a three-country study of the content of auditory hallucinations among people diagnosed with schizophrenia found that in the United States, violent images permeate the thinking of people who are thought to be “out of touch with reality.”5 In Ghana, hearing voices was often perceived as a positive conversation with God, and in India the voices were often critical of the listener’s housekeeping style (“clean your house!”). While 70% of voices heard by American participants told them to hurt themselves or others, only 20% did so in India and only 10% in Ghana. Thus, even people who are usually considered detached from reality can be “infected” by the American culture of violence.
Of course, the United States is saturated not only with violent images, but also with the means to translate those images into bloody realities. The physical, cultural, and social availability of lethal weapons provides a way to implement the most violent imperatives. Twenty-five years ago, I asked a group of 10-year-olds in the suburbs if they could have access to a gun “if they had to,” and almost all of them said yes. They still can.
The effects of gun violence on youth in the United States are multidimensional, but as someone who has interacted with hundreds of juvenile victims and perpetrators of gun violence, I find these two aspects particularly troubling.
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