Mental Health And Gun Violence: What You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The subject of mental health and gun violence is often multifaceted, encompassing not only the effects of gun violence on mental health—both for survivors and for communities at large—but also the stigmas and misconceptions existing regarding individuals with mental illness. 

To thoroughly explore this topic, it may be beneficial to further explore each aspect in more detail. It may be helpful to have an overview of the relationship between mental health and gun violence on both a broad and individual level, as well as insight into where you may seek support with this topic.  

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Understanding gun violence

Gun violence, also known as gun-related violence, is violence committed using a firearm. Gun violence may be considered intentional, in which a firearm is used to inflict harm, or accidental, in which a firearm unintentionally causes injury or death. 

Gun violence can take several forms, including but not limited to:

  • Homicide, in which one individual kills another using a gun
  • Domestic violence, in which a gun is used to cause injury or death in a domestic setting
  • Accidental violence, in which a gun causes injury or death without the intent of the user
  • Assault or injury, in which a gun is used to cause bodily harm
  • Theft, in which one individual uses a gun to rob another
  • Mass shootings, in which an individual kills or injures multiple people at the same time using a firearm.

Rates of gun violence vary based on location. In the United States, more than 48,000 people died from gun-related injuries in 2021 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

How gun violence can affect mental health

Gun violence can have far-reaching effects on mental health, both on an individual and community level. Below are further insights in this area. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

One of the primary groups who may be affected by gun violence is those who have experienced or witnessed it firsthand. Exposure to violence, whether gun violence or other forms, can put individuals at risk of developing mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As a disorder that can develop in some people after a traumatic experience, PTSD can involve symptoms like agitation, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, loneliness, and difficulty sleeping. For those exposed to violence, other mental health conditions may also emerge, such as anxiety, depression, or phobias. 

Childhood mental health

Gun violence can also have devastating, long-lasting effects on children. As the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) reports, in 2020, firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death among people aged one to 19 years in the US, surpassing motor vehicle crashes. Research suggests that K-12 students who had been exposed to a shooting at school were less likely to graduate high school and less likely to attend or graduate college. 

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Stress

Even for those who do not experience them directly, firearm deaths and other incidents of gun violence can have negative mental health impacts. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that, in 2019, 71% of adults in the United States cited mass shootings as a significant source of stress. Stress, particularly chronic or ongoing stress, has been associated with an increased risk of a range of physical and mental health problems, such as memory impairment, high blood pressure, heart attack, depression, and anxiety.

Misconceptions around mental illness and gun violence

When discussing mental health and gun violence, it can also be crucial to address the frequent scapegoating of individuals with mental illness. In conversations on gun violence, harmful stigmas about individuals with severe mental illness as being “violent” and “dangerous” may be spread. However, research has found that the vast majority of people with a serious mental illness are never violent, and only about 4% of violence in the US is attributable to mental illness alone. Other research has shown that adults with mental illness are “more likely to be survivors than perpetrators of community violence.”

Despite these studies, gun violence may increase the risk of stigma against those with mental illnesses. This stigma may lead to other mental health consequences, which, according to the American Psychiatric Association, may include reduced self-esteem, challenges with work and relationships, increased psychiatric symptoms, or a reduced likelihood of continuing to pursue treatment. This research illustrates the role that stigma resulting from gun violence may play in affecting mental health, even beyond those who are directly impacted. 

Getting support

The effects of gun violence may impact individuals and groups in various ways. However, a range of resources exist that may be helpful for those experiencing mental health challenges related to gun violence, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Support groups, where you can connect with others with similar experiences. 
  • Community mental health programs, which can provide local resources. 
  • Hotlines, such as the Crisis Text Line, Veterans Crisis Line, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which can be helpful for those in need of immediate support. 
  • Self-care practices, such as exercise, quality sleep, mindfulness, and eating a healthy diet, which may help to reduce stress and support overall well-being. 
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Support options 

For those experiencing gun violence-related mental health effects, therapy can also be a helpful resource. A licensed therapist can offer a safe space to discuss emotions around gun violence, possible strategies for managing symptoms, or advice for navigating related challenges. 

However, those experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or PTSD may find it challenging to leave the house and commute to a therapist’s office in person. In these cases, online therapy through platforms like BetterHelp may offer a useful alternative, offering the option to attend therapy from wherever is most convenient, including the comfort of your home.  

Online therapy has been found to be an effective form of treatment for a variety of mental health concerns, including PTSD. One such study published in 2022 found that guided internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy with a trauma focus (CBT-TF) for mild to moderate PTSD to one traumatic event was as effective as individual face-to-face CBT-TF

Takeaway

Gun violence can be defined as the use of a firearm to cause death or harm, either intentionally or unintentionally. The effects of gun violence on mental health may take a variety of forms, ranging from impacts on survivors, such as PTSD, to prejudice against those with existing mental illnesses. 

For those experiencing mental health challenges related to gun violence, resources such as hotlines, support groups, self-care strategies, and community programs may all be helpful. Therapy—either in-person or online—may also be a valuable source of support in managing the effects of gun violence on mental health.

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