Sen. Chris Murphy: Mental health and gun violence crisis

When we talk about the gun violence epidemic, the focus is usually on the number of people killed or injured. But that doesn’t even come close to describing the magnitude of this crisis. We ignore the waves of grief and trauma that wash over a community, leaving invisible wounds that are especially devastating to children.

Growing up in a violent neighborhood not only undermines any sense of safety or security, it changes your brain chemistry. Scientists have documented how violence-based trauma and fear for one’s safety inject harmful levels of the hormone cortisol into the brain. This is particularly damaging to children’s growing brains, making it difficult for them to sleep, learn, and process emotions. It dramatically affects brain development, making these young people more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics examined pediatric emergency departments in Philadelphia between 2014 and 2018. After adjusting for all variables, she found that children who lived within four to six blocks of the scene of a shooting were more likely than others to use an emergency room for mental health symptoms in the two months after the shooting. Unsurprisingly, it was even more likely if they were subjected to multiple shootings or lived closer to the crime scene.

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Communities plagued by daily violence undoubtedly suffer the worst, but no American is immune to the trauma that guns cause. A majority of teenagers fear their school may be next, and more than three-quarters of adults are stressed about the possibility of a mass shooting. Movie theaters, malls, parades, office buildings, houses of worship — wherever we go, most of us can’t shake the anxious “what if” feeling.

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There’s no doubt that any conversation about gun violence needs to include a conversation about mental health. I was glad that the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, of which I was a major sponsor, is providing $13 billion to expand school-based mental health programs, educate more providers, and increase access to mental health services for all.

But investing in mental health won’t end the gun violence epidemic. It treats the symptoms, not the cause.

America faces both a mental health crisis and gun violence, but only one fuels the other. And contrary to the talking points of the gun lobby, it is guns that are fueling our mental health crisis — not the other way around. In fact, people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

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We should continue to invest in mental health programs that help survivors, families and communities cope, but the most sensible action we can take is to build on the bipartisan Safer Communities Act and take action to ensure that Gun violence affects fewer people. Passing universal background checks and banning assault weapons are proven methods of saving lives and keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

When tragedy strikes, that community changes forever, and the least we can do is help pick up the pieces. But that will never be enough. Every child deserves to grow up free from the fear of gun violence. And that future is only possible through conscious action by Congress.

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