In 1999, Heather Martin, a senior at Columbine High School, was barricaded in a room for nearly three hours while two gunmen killed 13 people and wounded 21 individuals before taking their own lives. Although Heather was not physically injured, the trauma she experienced haunted her for years after the shooting. Her scars were not physical – they were internal.
Downplaying the traumatic event she witnessed, she kept her mental health struggles to herself, deeming them as insignificant and minor. Heather told The New York Times, “I minimized my own experience and always thought, Some have it worse. I should just be fine or be better.”
Although she did not admit it, Heather was far from fine. The recurring nightmares she dealt with for years were just the beginning. Soon, she dropped out of college after her eating disorder and drug use escalated.
Only after the shooting’s 10th anniversary did Heather recognize her internal wounds and confided in other survivors “who got it, who were also struggling, who didn’t judge me.”
Mass shootings such as the one Heather witnessed have increased over the years, becoming more common throughout the coronavirus pandemic. In 2022 alone, more than 240 mass shootings have taken place in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Supermarkets in Buffalo and Boulder, Colorado, a birthday party in Colorado Springs, a synagogue in Pittsburg, a musical festival in Las Vegas, a Waffle House in Nashville, and a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida are only a few examples of the frequent mass shootings that have occurred in the United States this year. School shootings are not unusual either.
A Rise in School Shootings
On May 24, the school shooting at Robb Elementary located in Uvalde, Texas was added to this dreadful list when 19 children and two adults were murdered. Students at Robb Elementary were attending their last week of school before summer break when a gunman opened fire on the students and teachers.
And unsurprisingly, this list continues to grow. 33 mass shootings have happened since the horror at Robb Elementary. The unimaginable impacts of gun violence cannot only be represented through statistics and numbers. With the rising number of mass shootings comes the increase of internal scars and damage to mental health that individuals like Heather face. Often undiscussed, the psychological effects that gun violence inevitably triggers not only impacts survivors but also those who follow the news of the event.
In other words, gun violence not only affects individuals but also communities and the nation at large.
It Could've Been Me
Fear, anxiety, frustration, and helplessness are all common feelings that instances of gun violence spark among individuals, regardless of their background and previous encounters with gun violence. The Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association conducted a survey in 2018 that analyzed the effects of mass shootings on youth’s mental health. The survey concluded that 75% of those between the ages of 15 and 21 considered mass shootings to be “significant stressors.”
The main contributor to the stress of youth after a mass shooting is the fact that it could have happened to anyone, that it could have happened to them. The Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association also found that more than half of Gen-Zs who are in school believe they experience stress sometimes when considering the possibility of a shooting at their school. 21% of Gen-Z say the possibility of a shooting at their school serves as a large source of stress.
Dr. Sara Johnson, a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained that some may begin to feel that the world is utterly unsafe after learning about occasions of gun violence. Dr. Johnson described that individuals may develop feelings that “they are powerless to change the circumstances in which they’re living.
“These kinds of mass shootings really tear at the fabric of society,” she added.
PTSD: For Life?
Experts have come to understand that after the occurrence of mass violence, survivors and responders will experience stress that subsides over time, as the National Center for PTSD reports. However, this does not apply to all people. Some individuals may experience lasting effects of the violence such as PTSD.
The National Center for PTSD writes, “However, those most strongly exposed—as well as those who face ongoing adversities—are at risk for long-term problems, even up to 10 years after the event.”
PTSD symptoms are similar for both children and adults. Most people with PTSD have trouble sleeping, turn emotionally dumb, and relive the traumatic event they experienced. Teenagers and adults may also turn to substance abuse to cope with their overwhelming pain. Younger children with PTSD tend to experience stomach aches and headaches, along with misbehaving or having difficulty concentrating for long periods of time.
The psychological impacts of gun violence do not discriminate. Individuals who do not live nearby gun violence are also susceptible to a decline in their mental health.
A study in California investigated the lasting effects of police killings on communities across Los Angeles. The Harvard study “The Effects of Police Violence on Inner-City Students” concluded that exposure to police violence among students leads to decreases in GPA, an increase in emotional disturbance, and lower rates of high school completion and college enrollment.
Another study published in JAMA Pediatrics explored how children and teenagers who lived within four to six blocks of where a recent shooting had taken place were more likely to visit an emergency room for mental health reasons compared to children who lived farther away from occurrences of violence. Some symptoms include anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm behavior.
Addressing gun violence is only half of the problem. Addressing the psychological effects of gun violence is crucial to healing individuals, communities, and the country as a whole. Recognizing the impact gun violence has on mental health is the first step to tackling the lasting consequences of gun violence.
After a shooting in 2012, Heather co-founded the Rebels Project, a nonprofit that supports those directly impacted by mass violence, with one of her high school friends. Now a high school English teacher, Heather reflected, “It’s really about acknowledging that you are impacted,” as “push[ing] down their trauma and their experiences…can lead to some really dangerous places.”
If gun violence persists, so will mental health struggles.