Mental Health of Children Exposure to Gun Violence

Children who are shot in Chicago are not the only ones affected by Chicago gun violence. A recent Voice of Child Health survey from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital found that 1 in 4 children hear gunshots while at home and 1 in 5 children see their mental health affected due to exposure to gun violence.

Dr. Samaa Kemal and Dr. Tyler Lennon, pediatric ER fellows at Lurie, say that children who are directly exposed to gun violence (hearing it, witnessing it, being victimized by it) are ten times more likely to see their mental health compared to children who are not exposed to gun violence. The survey included parents from all 77 Chicago community areas.

“The general exposure to gun violence is much more widespread than we expected,” says Kemal, adding that it is an important message and call to action for all parents.

“While the numbers are highest on the South and West sides, in every quadrant of Chicago children are affected by gun violence. I think it’s very important for parents to understand that it’s not just certain types of children, but all children who are affected in one way or another,” she says.

She and Lennon urge parents to talk to their kids about gun violence, and not be afraid to bring it up or use the word “gun.” “It’s better to have the leadership and mentoring of their parents to guide them through some really tough gun violence issues,” says Kemal.

start the conversation

Lennon suggests that the best first step is to create a safe space for children to process trauma knowing that they have the support of their parents or guardians. It’s extremely important to have an open dialogue, to talk about what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling, he says.

“I think it’s important to bring up the subject. Don’t wait,” she says, particularly with so much media coverage on the subject. “We really don’t want TV talking to kids. The reality is that children are exposed and we must provoke them and ask them what they think about this issue, what they are witnessing, what their friends and classmates are talking about at school”.

It doesn’t have to be complicated to start the conversation. He suggests that parents ask what they think and feel when they see something on TV or hear something happening in the community.

“Too often we try to beat around the bush on the subject. We don’t give children enough credit. They know what they are exposed to and it is our job as parents, pediatricians and community leaders to help them process that trauma. I think just asking direct questions it’s okay to use the word gun and it’s okay to use the word shoot,” Lennon says.

Add a mentor

Another factor in helping kids process trauma and stay out of gun violence is having a loving mentor, either in the community or in the family, she says.

Signs to look out for if your child has been exposed to gun violence include seeing your child become more anxious and having trouble concentrating at school. Kids may know they’re feeling bad, but they may not be able to pinpoint what’s causing it, she says.

The fact is that gun violence is preventable, says Kemal, adding that it is “horrifying” that it is now the leading cause of death among children.

Not only do children die, but they are affected in many more ways, she says. That, along with the current mental health crisis, is motivating her and Lennon to work harder to make sure people understand that this is a serious problem and look for solutions.

Lennon says it’s unfortunate that the issue of gun violence is so political and polarizing because it doesn’t have to be. The United States has seen other public health issues spark changes that can make a real difference, such as reducing the number of deaths from car crashes that used to rank first among child deaths.

Both Lennon and Kemal say Illinois and the nation need a meaningful community voice to “light a fire” under politicians to protect children, including passing an assault weapons ban. “The more people who can demand change, the sooner we’ll get change,” Lennon says.

The Lurie Voice of Child Health survey found that many parents agree with other measures that can help reduce exposure to gun violence in Chicago: 57 percent supported violence intervention programs in the community, 55 percent percent supported increasing job opportunities for youth, 53 percent supported increasing tutoring opportunities and creating safer outdoor venues, and 52 percent supported increasing after-school opportunities.

“The voice of the parents is very important to demand change for our children, I think it actually makes a big difference and many people have good ideas. It just requires building that collective voice,” says Kemal.

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