School Shootings Are Causing Anxiety and Panic in Children
TThe mass shooting at Uvalde Elementary School in Texas on May 24, in which 19 children were killed and two teachers was caused by a gunman, was the third most fatal school shooting in American history. But it was also just the latest of an increasingly common type of U.S. tragedy—one that experts say is saddling American schoolchildren, even the youngest, with rising levels of anxiety and other mental-health problems.
Even when children aren’t directly involved in school shootings, they are deeply affected by them and often experience anxiety and depression as a result, says Kira Riehm, a postdoctoral fellow at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “These events are extremely high profile, and they’re portrayed hugely in the media,” says Riehm. It also happens with alarming frequency. In 2022 so far, there have already been 27 school shootings in which someone was injured or killed, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker.
According to a 2021 study, JAMARiehm was joined by other researchers to survey more than 2,000 Los Angeles school-aged 11th-12th graders about their anxiety and fear of violent shootings. Researchers followed up with those same students and found that kids who were initially more concerned were more likely to meet the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder six months later—suggesting that kids internalize these fears, which can then manifest as diagnosable mental-health issues, Riehm says. While the researchers didn’t find an overall association between concern about school violence and the development of depression, they did when they looked specifically at Black children.
“The root issue is this concern and fear that this could also happen at your school or another school,” Riehm says. “They are large numbers, and unfortunately, that’s kind of in line with what I would have expected before even looking at the data.”
These symptoms can affect children of any age. But research by Dr. Aradhana Bela Sood at Virginia Commonwealth University shows that young children are much more at risk than their older counterparts. “Elementary school kids are probably going to have a much rougher time than perhaps older adolescents,” says Sood. Younger kids haven’t developed “those defenses, those capacities to sort things out in the brain,” Sood says. “They just haven’t had life experiences. And they have no idea how to make sense of this.”
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Published in a review for 2021 Current Psychiatry ReportsSood, along with her associates, examined research regarding the impact of mass shootings on mental health in children and teenagers. They found that young children (ages 2 to 9) who are directly or indirectly exposed to violence have increased rates of PTSD, but, older children (ages 10-19) “need multiple exposures to violence—direct or indirect—for it to lead to PTSD, suggesting that younger children are more sensitive to violence and develop psychological symptoms post exposure to violence at a higher rate,” the study authors write. Direct exposures are defined as those who witness or survive a violent incident. Indirect exposures include seeing photos of the shooting. High social media use and continuous news reporting on mass shootings expose children repeatedly to these disturbing stories, which “can have at least short-term psychological effects on youth living outside of the affected communities such as increased fear and decreased perceived safety,” the authors write.
For a long period, gun-related concerns have been a common concern among U.S. schoolchildren.Researchers conducted a survey of high school students in America shortly after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, in which thirteen people died. The results were published in American Journal of Preventive MedicineAccording to the survey, 30% of students felt unsafe in school compared with national data before the shooting. This is evidence of “vicarious traumatization,” Sood says, which can occur when a child hears about a tragedy or sees images of it—even if they don’t experience it firsthand. Sood says that kind of exposure is much more likely to produce long-term damage in children who already have shown symptoms of anxiety and depression—which describes a growing number of American kids. “There are certain children that I would be very vigilant about,” Sood says.
Although young children may be affected deeply by trauma events, their resilience is a positive thing. “Obviously there’s an impact, but what you want to see over weeks is a gradual reduction in this response, and that’s normative for young kids,” Sood says.
Parents and guardians have specific options to support their children when they are directly or indirectly affected by mass shootings. “It is important for people around the child to be vigilant and aware of how they can be supportive and allow the evolution of the grief,” Sood says. Sood suggests that giving the child a routine and encouraging them to share their feelings without judgement, as well as limiting how much news they receive about tragic events, can help. The guardian or parent should ensure their child’s mental well-being.
Not only is gun violence a contributing factor to America’s growing mental-health crisis, but so are other factors. Riehm states that climate change and COVID-19 also pose serious concerns. In November 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a national emergency for the mental health of children. “We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities,” the experts wrote.
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