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How Mass Shootings Hurt Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on October 26, 2022

Mass shootings can have a huge impact on your mental health, even if you’re not directly involved in one.

In 2014, there were 269 mass shooting incidents in the U.S. In 2019, the number went up to 417. In 2020, there were 611.

Who’s Most Affected by a Mass Shooting?

Researchers know how shootings impact survivors and members of the communities. They know less about how the violence affects people not directly exposed. But we do know that just seeing the news coverage can hurt mental health.

You may be at risk for more severe psychological trauma if you:

  • Have mental health issues before the shooting
  • Are female
  • Are close to someone who was hurt or died in the shooting
  • Are located close to the attack site
  • Have less social support

How Does Media Coverage of Mass Shootings Affect Mental Health?

Experts say the fact that mass shootings happen so often, combined with our access to media coverage of the events, is hurting everyone’s mental health. If you know someone who lived through an event, they may be more severely impacted.

People aren’t only watching these events on news outlets that may be careful about what they show. On social media, people can watch actual footage of the gun violence, which may be even more graphic -- they may even see it in real-time as a shooting unfolds.

The amount of media coverage you see of a shooting is linked to more stress. Graphic images can make things worse. Stress may lead to a variety of diseases and conditions.

These are a few ways that seeing coverage of -- or being directly affected by -- mass gun violence affects your mental health:

Stress. Some studies have found that people who’ve watched large amounts of media coverage of traumatic events showed symptoms similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, and other physical health ailments -- even when not directly affected. About 28% of people who have seen a mass shooting develop PTSD, while about one-third have acute stress disorder (that’s when you have PTSD symptoms in the first month after a traumatic event).

Anxiety. A majority of teens say they worry about a shooting happening at their school. This can cause anxiety. One third of adults say they avoid certain places as a result of seeing mass shootings happen. Watching or reading about mass violence can create a cycle of distress where you worry about future violence. This is known as perseverative cognition. Anxiety disorders can include panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.It has been linked to impacts on physical health. You can have symptoms such as sleep loss, headaches, and stomach upset. You can also do things that harm your health, such as binge drinking, not getting exericise, or eating unhealthy foods.

Antidepressant use. Research shows more children went on antidepressants if they experienced a school shooting. They were used more among young people who lived within 5 miles of a shooting in one study.

Do Mass Shootings Affect Certain Groups of People Differently?

Mass shootings can impact people’s mental health regardless of how close those people are to the location of the event -- even if they have no personal ties to people directly involved. The impacts can be more intense for those who survive an event, knew someone killed, or live in close proximity. For the most part, gun violence can affect anyone whether they’re in a minority or majority. Some people may be upset; others may feel numb. Some may go on to have serious mental health problems.

When a shooter targets a specific group, it can impact the mental health of people in that group directly. People in the LGBTQ+ community across the country had more psychological distress after the 2016 shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL, compared to heterosexual men.

Studies have found a link between worry about school shootings and major depressive symptoms for Black youth, but not for those of other races.

When this happens, the media may focus on those targeted in a shooting and their communities with regard to race, ethnicity, religion, or other identifying factors. This can negatively affect some communities and the mental health of the people in it. A survey after a 2022 shooting in Buffalo, NY -- when a white man targeted all Black people -- found that minorities were more worried than white people that they’d be threatened or attacked based on their race or ethnicity.

How Do Mass Shootings Harm Kids?

Children are directly affected by mass shootings, especially if one is at their school. It impacts their mental health and can have a negative impact on academic performance. This can, in turn, also hurt their mental health.

Students attend school less after a shooting, and student enrollment drops. In the 2 years following an incident, students are more likely to have to repeat a grade. Their test scores also go down.

When researchers looked at victims of a school shooting and compared their performance to students who attended the same school before the event, they noticed some big differences. Children exposed to shootings are less likely to graduate high school, go to college, and graduate college. They are also less likely to get jobs. Those who do work tend to earn lower income early in their working years, in their mid-20s.

School shootings have gone up over time. There were 93 shootings at public and private schools in the U.S. between 2020 and 2021-- up from 23 between 2000 and 2001. Between 2018 and 2019, more than 100,000 American children attended schools where a shooting occurred.

 

How Can I Take Care of Myself After a Mass Shooting?

Seek local resources. If you live close to the scene, local schools and organizations likely have resources near you, such as counseling services.

Talk to others. Connecting with people who feel the same, or were affected like you, can give you some comfort.

Skip major decisions. Hold off on making any big decisions while you process things and take care of yourself.

Be mindful of your role. If you work in a career that responds to a mass shooting (such as a police officer or funeral director), you may be constantly exposed to details of the event long after it’s over. This can create vicarious trauma.Not all responses to vicarious trauma are negative, but they can affect your mental health.

Limit what you see. If you watch a lot of coverage -- especially with graphic images -- it may increase your stress levels. This can lead to more mental health issues. Limit what you see and don’t watch videos if you think they may upset you. If you have children, decide if and how you will talk about the event. Limit their exposure

How Can I Help My Child Process a Mass Shooting?

Your child or children can use your support after a mass shooting. The good news is that most kids’ mental health issues usually resolve about a year after a gun violence event.

Your child may:

  • Feel scared or worried about others
  • Be afraid of another shooting
  • Stay away from friends or social situations
  • Have attitude changes
  • Eat or sleep differently
  • Be less able to focus
  • Have headaches or stomachaches
  • Harm themselves or turn to drugs or alcohol
  • Talk about the event either a lot or not at all
  • Have strong emotional or physical reactions to media or sounds

Here are a few things you can do to help them:

Offer to talk. Find a time to sit down and chat when you’re not interrupted.Let them know you’re there to talk and to answer questions about anything related to the incident, including their own safety. It’s OK not to know all the answers. Let your child know they aren’t alone in their feelings, and however they feel is OK. If they were involved, reassure the child that nothing is their fault. If the child doesn’t want to talk, let them know you’re there if and or when they’re ready to talk.

Promote self-care. Encourage your child to eat and drink normally and get rest and exercise. If a child doesn’t want to talk with others or attend events, let them know that’s OK.

Keep structure in place. Keep bedtimes, curfews, schoolwork schedules, and other family rules consistent. You may want to watch more carefully what your older children do and who they hang out with, at least for a little while.

Speak up about behavior. Encourage your child to express their feelings in a safe way. Help them understand that behaviors like self-harm and substance use are dangerous ways to deal with a traumatic event. Introduce new ways of dealing with feelings, like journaling or trying a new hobby.

Limit media exposure. Protect your child from too much media coverage. Remember to include their social media channels, as well as internet, radio, and TV. Check where they are getting information from to try and make sure it’s an accurate source.

Watch their relationships. Explain that relationships may be a little strained after a shooting. Remind them to be tolerant of how others process the event, which may be different from how they do.

Seek help. It’s OK to reach out for professional assistance if your child isn’t doing well after a few months.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: “Stress of Mass Shootings Causing Cascade of Collective Traumas.”

Association for Psychological Sciences: “Media Exposure to Collective Trauma, Mental Health, and Functioning: Does It Matter What You See?” “Mental- and Physical-Health Effects of Acute Exposure to Media Images of the September 11, 2001, Attacks and the Iraq War.”

Gun Violence Archive: "GVA Seven Year Review."

Journal of Experimental Psychopathology: “When Worries Make You Sick: A Review of Perseverative Cognition, the Default Stress Response and Somatic Health.”

Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health: “Did the Orlando Shooting at Pulse Nightclub Affect Sexual Minority Mental Health? Results and Challenges Using Population-Based Data.”

New England Journal of Medicine: “The War-Zone Mentality -- Mental Health Effects of Gun Violence in U.S. Children and Adolescents."

Office for Victims of Crime: “What is Vicarious Trauma?”

Pew Research Center: “Safety Concerns Were Top of Mind for Many Black Americans Before Buffalo Shooting.”

Science Advances: “Media Exposure to Mass Violence Events Can Fuel a Cycle of Distress.”

Stanford University Institute for Economic Policy Research: “Surviving a School Shooting: Impacts on the Mental Health, Education, and Earnings of American Youth.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: “Parent Guidelines for Helping Youth after the Recent Shooting.”

Trauma Violence and Abuse: “The Mental Health Consequences of Mass Shootings.”

University of Colorado Boulder: “After a Mass Shooting: Examining the Role of Media Coverage.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Acute Stress Disorder.”

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: “Perseverative Cognition and Health Behaviors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Stress Management.”

JAMA Network: “Adolescents’ Concerns About School Violence or Shootings and Association With Depressive, Anxiety, and Panic Symptoms.”

Institute of Education Sciences: “Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2021.”

National Council on Family Relastions: “Gun Violence and the Minority Experience.”

American Psychological Association: “What happens to the survivors.”

 

 

 

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