Jhe May 24 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in which a gunman killed 19 young children and two teachers, was the third deadliest shooting in US history . But it was also just the latest in an increasingly common type of American tragedy – one that experts say is overwhelming even the youngest American school children with increasing levels of anxiety and other mental health problems.
Even when children are not directly involved in school shootings, they are deeply affected by it and often suffer from anxiety and depression, says Kira Riehm, postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “These events are highly publicized and they are widely portrayed in the media,” says Riehm. They also occur with alarming frequency. So far in 2022, there have already been 27 school shootings in which someone has been injured or killed, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker.
In a study published in 2021 in JAMA, Riehm and other researchers surveyed more than 2,000 11th and 12th graders in Los Angeles about their fear of shootings and violence at their own school or at other schools. Researchers followed these same students and found that children who were initially more worried were more likely to meet criteria for generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder six months later, suggesting that children internalize these fears, which can then manifest as a mental health diagnosis. problems, says Riehm. Although the researchers did not find an overall association between concerns about school violence and the development of depression, they did when they looked specifically at black children.
“The fundamental problem is this worry and this fear that it could also happen in your school or in another school,” says Riehm. “These are big numbers, and unfortunately that’s what I expected even before looking at the data.”
Children of all ages are at risk of developing these types of symptoms after a shooting, but research shows that younger children are even more likely than older ones to develop symptoms such as anxiety and PTSD, says Dr Aradhana Bela Sood, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Kids in elementary school are likely going to have a much tougher time than older teens,” Sood says. Young children haven’t developed “those defences, those abilities to sort things out in the brain,” Sood says. “They just haven’t had any life experiences. And they don’t know how to make sense of it.
Read more: Close-knit Uvalde community mourns after primary school shooting
In a 2021 review published in Current psychiatric reports, Sood and his colleagues analyzed research on the effects of mass shootings on the mental health of children and adolescents. They found that young children (ages 2-9) 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 PTSD, suggesting that young children are more susceptible to violence and develop psychological symptoms after exposure to violence at a higher rate,” write the authors. study authors. (In the study, direct exposures were broadly defined as witnessing or surviving a violent event; indirect exposures included seeing images of a shooting.) Heavy use social media and continued reporting of mass shootings repeatedly exposes children to these disturbing stories, which “may have at least short-term psychological effects on young people living outside of affected communities, such as a fear increased and decreased perceived safety,” the authors write.
Gun concerns have long been prevalent among American school children. Shortly after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, in which 13 people were killed, researchers interviewed high school students across the United States. Their results, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that 30% more students said they felt unsafe at school, compared to national survey data collected before the shooting. It’s evidence of a “vicarious trauma,” Sood says, that can occur when a child hears about a tragedy or sees images of it, even if they haven’t experienced it firsthand. Sood says this type of exposure is much more likely to produce long-term harm in children who have already shown symptoms of anxiety and depression, which describes a growing number of American children. “There are some kids that I would be very vigilant about,” Sood says.
Although young children are deeply affected by traumatic events, the good news is that they are also resilient. “Obviously there is an impact, but what you want to see over the weeks is a gradual reduction in that response, and that’s normative for young children,” Sood says.
Whether a child is directly or indirectly affected by a mass shooting, there are specific steps parents and guardians can take to help their young children cope with the tragedy. “It’s important for those around the child to be alert and aware of how they can provide support and allow the grief to evolve,” says Sood. Giving the child a predictable routine, allowing them to talk about the experience without judgment, and limiting the news the child takes in about a tragic event all help, Sood says. Parents or guardians should also ensure that they take care of their own mental health.
The ever-present threat of gun violence is just one of many contributors to the worsening mental health crisis among American adolescents. Riehm says issues like climate change and COVID-19 are other big concerns. In November 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Association of Children’s Hospitals jointly declared a national emergency for children’s mental health. “We care for young people with increasing 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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