June 2022 Blog

Mental Health, Gun Violence and PTSD: Where is the Hope?


May to June: Just this flip of the calendar has always seemed to me like one of the biggest transitions of the year. In May spring is in full bloom, and just like the honeybees, many of our lives are buzzing with activity as the school year comes to an end and we prepare for the slowing down that comes in June to welcome summer. May is also a time for graduations, the beginning of wedding season, and where I grew up in Indianapolis, the Indy 500 over Memorial Day Weekend is the cherry on top of a month of excitement.

This year the month of May seemed to carry an extra level of intensity as tragedy and gun violence overshadowed the national news. Just one day prior to the start of the month country music icon Naomi Judd lost her battle with mental illness, and it was confirmed that she died by suicide. Her tragic death set the stage for Mental Health Awareness Month- a national movement aiming to, “fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families”.1 She had been open about her severe mental health struggles and helped to fight the stigma that keeps many from talking about it or getting help. Sadly, it was the death of a public figure that led to more conversations, and we see that success and fame do not exempt someone from struggling.

Then came the mass shootings, the first notable being the Buffalo, NY grocery store on May 14 in which the gunman was motivated by racism and killed 10 people in this hate crime. Ten days later our hearts broke for the families of the 19 children and 2 teachers who were horrifically shot and killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX by an 18-year-old gunman. These were just 2 of the 47 total acts of gun violence that occurred in the U.S. during the month of May2. When seeking solutions to mass shootings it can become tempting to blame the problem on one particular system, such as inadequate mental healthcare or problematic gun control laws. As a mental health professional, I’m concerned that when we are too quick to blame untreated mental health problems alone as the cause, then we stigmatize those struggling with mental illness, which could then make them less likely to seek treatment. I haven’t studied the issue in depth, but I came across some thoughts by someone who has- Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, MPH, Ph.D., an epidemiologist who works for a nonpartisan health policy think tank. She sites large epidemiological studies that have shown that rates of violence among people with mild-to-moderate mental illnesses range from 2-4% compared to 1-3% in the general population. There is a much stronger association between having a mental illness and being a victim of violence. Those with mood disorders are much more likely to harm themselves than others. So what does predict a mass shooting? Experts have identified 3 predictive factors that are especially strong when in combination: 1. Specific motives such as revenge or envy 2. Adoption of extremist beliefs and 3. Social isolation. A research group called The Violence Project concluded that mass shootings often result from of a constellation of behaviors involving accumulated childhood trauma, an identifiable crisis point (separate from psychosis), the need to blame someone, and the opportunity to conduct a mass shooting (i.e. access to firearms). You can read her full article and studies referenced here: https://yourlocalepidemiologist.substack.com/p/its-hard-to-explain-and-fix-evil?s=w&fbclid=IwAR39oSCtVmOBEfEwm4dmeGgSlSiKlyg52aOXNxubylrUDXCnSWmzR7wmYX0

When working with a client who is struggling with suicidal thoughts and intentions, I am trained to do whatever I can to restrict access to their means of hurting themselves. This includes asking about the presence of a gun in the home and restricting access to it. A colleague of mine, Chelsea Woodard, LPC-MHSP, recently shared her thoughts on this and I am in agreement. She said, “Is this our only means of helping them? Of course not. We will continuously work to put in place other protective mechanisms and heal the pieces of them leading to want to hurt themselves. Why on EARTH would we not work to put in place this same level of safety precautions for those who could be at risk of hurting others? The implementation of safer gun laws is not mutually exclusive from providing better, more accessible mental healthcare. This problem is multifaceted, and thus, the solution will be as well.”
Following the month that we’ve had it only seems appropriate that June is PTSD Awareness Month. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when someone has been exposed to a traumatic event and the stress responses such as intrusive thoughts, avoidance and hyperarousal linger for at least a month after the event has happened. Without a doubt, many of those affected by hate crimes and mass shootings will develop PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD fall into the following four categories. Specific symptoms can vary in severity4.

1. Intrusion: Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event.
2. Avoidance: Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that may trigger distressing memories.
3. Alterations in cognition and mood: Inability to remember important aspects of the traumatic event, negative thoughts and feelings leading to distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); distorted thoughts about the cause or consequences of the event leading to wrongly blaming self or other; ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; decreased interest in pleasurable activities; feeling detached from others; or being unable to experience positive emotions.
4. Alterations in arousal and reactivity: Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being overly watchful of one’s surroundings in a suspecting way; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping.

If you notice multiple symptoms described above in yourself or someone you know who has been exposed to a traumatic event, please seek help from a trained professional. Therapies that have been shown to be effective in treating PTSD include Cognitive Processing Therapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Brainspotting. I am trained in the latter two and have seen clients experience remarkable healing. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is passionate about raising awareness of PTSD and promoting treatment. For more information from them, visit: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/what/ptsd_basics.asp
In summary, combatting evil in the world such as mass shootings is complex, but we need not give up hope on seeking prevention, seeking protection and seeking healing from the trauma of violence.

Sources:

  1. https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Health-Awareness-Month
  2. https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting
  3. https://yourlocalepidemiologist.substack.com/p/its-hard-to-explain-and-fix-evil?s=w&fbclid=IwAR39oSCtVmOBEfEwm4dmeGgSlSiKlyg52aOXNxubylrUDXCnSWmzR7wmYX0

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