Gun Violence Takes a Brutal Psychological Toll on Kids

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A march in the streets of Chicago by children protesting against gun violence Photo: Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images

In a handful of communities in the United States, violence is a traumatizing part of everyday life. And one underappreciated aspect of living in these neighborhoods, writes ABC News’s Avianne Tan, is the long-term psychological effects this sort of exposure to violence can have on children.

For her article, Tan reports from Chicago, where there were 762 murders and 4,367 shootings last year, and where nine kids younger than 15 have already been killed this year. “We think that the incident is over after their bullet wounds recover, but really, this is just the beginning of their suffering,” Loyola University Chicago criminology professor and clinical psychologist Arthur Lurigio tells her.

Another researcher then explains what life is like for many kids who have been exposed to deadly violence:

That shaken sense of safety can lead to a wide array of symptoms, including many that are a part of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Maryam Kia-Keating, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara.

“They may be struggling with distressing memories of what happened, such as having nightmares and flashbacks, and this can make it difficult to concentrate and pay attention,” Kia-Keating told ABC News. “They can experience hyper-arousal, which is when you are more likely to have a startled response or be very frightened in situations where you are not necessarily facing the same threat, but you feel like that same threat is there.”

Other symptoms include trouble eating and sleeping and experiencing aches and pains that aren’t related to an acute illness, Kia-Keating said.

Many of these are the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, which can be quite prevalent in dangerous neighborhoods — a 2014 Al Jazeera America article, for example, cited a “study [from] Chicago’s Cook County Hospital — which tends to thousands of gunshot victims each year — [which found that] more than 4 in 10 patients screened showed symptoms of PTSD, with an even higher rate among those wounded by guns.” That is a lot of pain and suffering.

Tan’s article notes that there are solid treatment techniques for children traumatized by gun violence — one researcher cites “parent-child interaction therapy,” which can be completed over a rather short stretch of sessions — but that there’s a persistent stigma against seeking out help. It’s probably also worth pointing out that neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence tend to be poor, and therefore are more likely to be cut off from mental-health services than wealthier ones. All of which contributes to a rather heartbreaking state of affairs for children surrounded by violence.

Gun Violence Takes a Brutal Psychological Toll on Kids