Mental health impacts of gun violence often push back regulation

By ANNA MARIE GARCIA, Mr. Ed
Vice President for Early Childhood Education
LANL Foundation

Students in New Mexico ended their school year last spring just days after the tragic mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. They are returning to school this month shortly after a suspect was arrested in the shooting of four Muslim men in Albuquerque. Gun violence has moved to the forefront of public consciousness, with much of the conversation understandably focusing on regulation. Unfortunately, much less thought has been given to the impact on the mental health of survivors, especially children.

The consequences of armed violence affect children, families and communities in many ways. It is estimated that three million children witness a shooting every year. Firearms are the leading cause of death among children and adolescents (link). In response to these chilling statistics, much of the public conversation has focused on legislation to limit easy access to firearms. Often lost in this debate, however, is another immediate crisis. We must address the social, emotional and mental health impacts of those who have been traumatized by gun violence and overexposure to violence, especially children.

We are seeing more and more children struggling with mental health issues. Meeting these needs, especially in young children, is not easy. For starters, we have a severe shortage of mental health professionals, so care is not always accessible or often affordable. And yet, we have a shared responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of children and young people in our communities.

Children don’t often learn to talk about their feelings. Too often, the emotions of fear, anger and guilt manifest themselves in aggressive or violent behavior, both at home and in social situations. Our responsibility as members of the community is to understand the role that chronic trauma plays on the developing brain. Because the brain is developing rapidly in children under five, it is particularly vulnerable to traumatic events or toxic stress.

We must reduce the number of children and young people exposed to domestic or public violence, especially armed violence. This task may seem very daunting, but there are other ways that almost everyone can participate in reducing our collective trauma:

  • Limit (or eliminate) the time young children spend watching the news, playing violent games, or watching violence on TV.
  • Teach young children to understand their feelings, name and express those feelings appropriately, thereby learning to regulate their emotions.
  • Teach children conflict resolution or demonstrate non-violent problem-solving skills.
  • If you are an employer, explore workplace policies that support families’ ability to provide for their children (living wages, predictable working hours, etc.) as well as creating a safe, stress-free space for employees to take care of themselves.
  • Parents can learn about positive parenting and participate in free, universal home visiting services available to everything families with young children in New Mexico.
  • Teachers should take the opportunity to learn about trauma-informed care, a practice that emphasizes understanding the role that trauma plays on families, communities, and young children in particular, to help guide their teaching.

Preventing children’s exposure to violence is no longer the sole responsibility of parents or guardians. It has become the responsibility of grandparents, teachers, social workers, clergy, policy makers, public figures, as well as all members of the community. Together, we can have a greater positive impact on children’s lives so they succeed, learn throughout life, and are able to form strong, healthy relationships.

About Laurence Johnson

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