On Valentine’s Day, 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkand lost their lives in the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history. The children who were there, their families, the South Florida community, and people across the country must come together to stop this violence and keep our children safe.
It is important for people to know about the mental health consequences of being exposed to gun violence.
After witnessing or being exposed to a life-threatening event, some people will experience an acute stress disorder. To meet criteria for this diagnosis, symptoms must last for at least three days and persist for no longer than a month. Patients may experience vivid recollections of the traumatic event.
If symptoms continue after this period, patients may have post-traumatic stress disorder, better known as PTSD. PTSD can be chronic and symptoms may worsen and improve over the course of a patient’s life.
Symptoms of PTSD include recurrent images of the event, frequent nightmares, and feeling hypervigilant in daily life. Some people with PTSD may avoid people, places, or reminders of their trauma. Many who have been exposed to gun violence become frightened by fireworks, which remind them of gunshots. The Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve is often spent sequestered with earplugs to avoid hearing fireworks. Helicopters also may trigger vulnerable individuals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 33,594 people died in the United States in 2014 as a result of firearms, which totaled 16.8 percent of all injury-related fatalities. Consider that 32.8 percent of these deaths were homicides and 63.7 percent were suicides. In 2014, about half of the 42,826 suicides in the United States could be attributed to guns.
Another point: Gun homicide rates are, on average, 25.2 times higher in the United States than in other high-income countries, according to CNN. The United States had 36 gun homicides per 1 million people in 2010, compared with 3 for Finland, 2 for Austria and 2 for France, the next three countries on the list. Great Britain, Japan, Norway and South Korea had none.
If your child wants to speak with you about Stoneman Douglas, or any gun violence, absolutely talk to them. Listening is critical. Ask them what they already know. Consider gently correcting any false information. Allow them to ask questions and answer with wording that is as age appropriate as possible.
It’s OK to let your child know how you are feeling. Children often have a better gauge of their parents’ emotions than adults anticipate. Understand that when a child asks you questions, they will likely need you to repeat answers. Provide them with the support they need.
Look for changes in your child following this or any tragedy. Poor sleep, poor appetite, difficulty concentrating, poor energy or irritability may all be concerning signs. Some younger children may regress. Monitor for bed-wetting or losing milestones that they previously had accomplished.
Remember that following any traumatic incident, people may be at higher risk for suicidal thoughts or violence. You MUST call 911 immediately and have your child evaluated if you are concerned that they may harm themselves or anyone else. If you have a weapon, it must be stored unloaded in a safe, locked cabinet.
Additionally, many accidental events associated with firearms occur when a person is under the influence of alcohol or illicit substances. Firearms should never be handled while intoxicated.
There are mental health consequences associated with gun violence and firearms. If you choose to own or operate a firearm, obtain appropriate training and secure your weapon. We recommend that you consider consulting with a mental health professional. Together, you and your physician can determine whether it is safe for you to possess a firearm at all or at a given time.
If you or your child have been exposed to gun violence, if you believe they may have PTSD, or if you would like to see a mental health professional for an evaluation, please call 305-355-9028. If you are currently suicidal, or worried that your child is, dial 911 or the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Report to your nearest emergency room. Help is available.
Samantha Saltz, M.D. and Nicole Mavrides, M.D., treat children, adolescents and adults at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami Health System. To learn more about UHealth’s clinical services, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.