Mental health and gun violence
Updated: May 11, 2022
In the span of one week, two survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting died by suicide. Sydney Aiello, Class of 2018, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and survivor’s guilt. She dreamed of entering the medical field, but classrooms gave her anxiety. She was close friends with Meadow Pollack, one of the 17 killed in the massacre. The impact of the shooting scarred her and led to her death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 19. Just days later, Calvin Desir, 16, died. As a result, Parkland, Florida finds itself in crisis mode yet again.
Parkland is not the only city that had a loss of life following a mass shooting; Newtown, Connecticut also faced a tragic loss. Not too long after the two deaths in Parkland, the father of one of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Jeremy Richman, 49, died by suicide. He was a neuroscientist and had created the Avielle Foundation in memory of his daughter, Avielle, who was one of the 26 who died.
It appears that every time that the news of another mass shooting in the U.S. occurs, someone brings up the topic of mental health. “It’s not guns; it’s mental health!” opponents of gun control love to claim, as if having both a gun problem and a mental health problem are mutually exclusive. Yes, mass shootings and mental health go hand in hand. In the cases of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Sandy Hook, the perpetrators received inadequate treatment for their mental health. Of course, that shows that there is a shortcoming in how the U.S. handles mental healthcare, and should spark discussion of how to mend its flaws. However, the relationship between mental health and guns is not limited to the mental health of the perpetrator. The discussion of mental health in the context of gun violence is lacking in one critical area: the aftermath of gun violence for survivors.
Currently, mental health resources are inaccessible for many. Kyra Parrow, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, wrote in Vox that “students and teachers were expected to return to the campus and the crime scene. The mental health professionals made available were largely inaccessible and insufficient for the more than 3,000 students and staff navigating their trauma and grief.” Even in the school where you would hope the students and faculty could come together with their shared trauma and pain, there was an expectation to return to normalcy as if nothing happened and to box up the pain. There were therapeutic activities such as “therapy dogs, painting rocks, and hugs,” but they were merely “a bandage to deep mental wounds that needed stitches.”
It’s disheartening to see too many people who chant “it’s mental health!” diverting the topic away from gun control and not proposing any policy change to improve our mental healthcare system. Healthcare costs in general often bar people from seeking professional help. High schools across the nation are facing a shortage of school counselors. Well-meaning people often don’t know how to help someone in crisis. Suicide hotlines often require a wait before one can access a trained responder. Many police departments in our country are not trained for crisis intervention and fewer have specialized crisis response teams. These are just a handful of places that policymakers can start to improve how we approach mental health, but progress appears to be stagnant despite our empty “thoughts and prayers.” As Pope Francis said best, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.” It’s time that we move past simply posting our wish for change and make that change happen.
Gun violence extends beyond mass shootings that we see on the news. Approximately two-thirds of gun deaths are from suicides, yet this appears to be the aspect of gun violence that doesn’t get talked about. If we want to talk about how guns and mental health interact, it’s time that we continue the dialogue past mass shootings and ask “how can we improve access to resources for mental health?” Until then, we are simply throwing empty thoughts that do not enact change.