Mass violence weighs on the psyche of Americans

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When the American Psychological Association surveyed more than 2,000 people about their stress levels just days after back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, in 2019, the results revealed the toll of seemingly relentless violence and random.

A third of respondents said they would no longer go to certain public places for fear of being the victim of a mass shooting. Almost as many said they couldn’t go anywhere without fear of being shot. Twenty-four percent said they made changes in their lives because of their fear of a mass shooting.

Sixty-two percent of parents said they lived in fear that their children would be victims of a mass shooting, and 71% said the possibility of mass violence added stress to their lives. The poll used an online survey with non-random methods, so results may not be nationally representative.

Attacks on the psyche of Americans have only intensified since then, with a more than two-year pandemic that has claimed the lives of 1 million people in the United States; street battles in the fight for racial justice; a war in Ukraine that has rekindled fears of a nuclear conflict; a rollercoaster economy; an insurgent riot at the United States Capitol; a visible worsening of the effects of climate change and many more mass shootings. These culminated in the Tuesday massacre of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, just 10 days after the massacre of 10 black shoppers and workers at a Buffalo supermarket.

Experts say the relentless developments are taking a toll on our mental and physical health and how we interact as a society. The targeting of churches and schools has been particularly distressing for many people who have long viewed them as spaces sheltered from the turmoil of the world.

“People are emotionally drained,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, a University of California, Irvine psychologist who has studied trauma for decades. “We cannot see any of these events in isolation. We are witnessing a cascade of collective trauma. … I don’t think many people could have conceived of such a degree of loss.

The impact is felt more deeply by communities already under pressure. “It has an impact on the country as a whole and an even greater impact on people of color, who are largely the victims of these last two incidents,” said Reverend Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church. in Boston, who has worked on anti-violence initiatives for decades.

“Even though intellectually you know it’s a rare thing, the feeling of insecurity is cumulative, and I think for a lot of people it’s extremely unsettling,” he said.

The New American Normal: “Why are we willing to live with this carnage?”

The idea that people of color feel more vulnerable is supported by the APA survey, which was incorporated into the organization’s annual report America Stress Report. Hispanics, blacks, Asians and Native Americans all reported more stress from mass shootings than whites.

A Quinnipiac University Poll and one Pew Research Center surveyboth conducted in 2018 after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, showed the same results, with blacks and Hispanics more fearful of mass violence than whites, and young people more worried than older respondents.

At a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, residents and families came together to find comfort in their community. (Video: Alice Li, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Tuesday’s rampage brought further anguish to a nation that saw the faces of children like 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza smiling proudly with her certificate of honor just hours before she was murdered by a gunman with a assault rifle.

The investigations, the experts said, affirm their belief that the repeated exposure to shocking acts of violence that occur with horrific regularity in this country, alone among its equals, affects people’s health.

“This is clearly having a significant negative impact, and particularly on our mental and physical health,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of healthcare innovation at APA, who works on Stress in America surveys. conducted every year since 2007.

When acts of mass violence “repeat in this way, they begin to feel more and more overwhelming and a sense of hopelessness begins to set in”, she said.

Human bodies aren’t supposed to be in a state of turmoil so often, she said. The result is hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and an inability to “be in the moment.” Some people can become desensitized to violence as a defense, she said.

“People feel so overwhelmed with stress and worry that they have to compartmentalize it to some degree,” Wright said.

Joshua Morganstein, a psychiatrist and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disasters, noted that schools are considered safe places, as are places of worship – both of which have been attacked in shootings by mass in recent years.

It is particularly distressing when these places are hit by violence, he said. And the death of children in violent acts adds another layer of horror: “It also challenges our perception and belief about the natural order of life in the world, which is that parents are supposed to precede their children in death, not the other way around. ,” he said.

Morganstein suggested people watch their news intake about horrific events like the Uvalde shooting. It’s not insensitive to turn off the news, he said — it can be necessary for mental health.

“The media is such an important source of information for us, but we know that exposure to disaster-related media is consistently associated with feelings of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms, sleep, increased alcohol and tobacco use,” he said.

Silver, the Californian psychologist, studied the health consequences of exposure to information about the September 11 attacks and the war in Iraq, and found evidence to suggest that some people developed new cardiovascular diseases as a result. She is now studying the psychological and physical health consequences of this “continuous onslaught” of bad news on our sense of security.

Previous research on mass trauma shows that some people can develop conditions such as short-term anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health issues.

And those exposed to multiple tragedies tend to have “greater distress, functional impairment, and lower life satisfaction,” according to a 2020 Silver commentary published in Nature Human Behavior, based on numerous studies. Bad news is amplified by rapid dissemination on social media and repetition throughout the 24-hour news cycle.

“We don’t just see or hear the news of these tragedies, but we see them in graphic color,” she said.

In addition to reducing information consumption, experts advised focusing on what can be controlled rather than worrying about what might happen, and putting upsetting information in a larger context.

Mass shootings in which four or more people are killed account for less than 1% of the roughly 20,000 firearm homicides in the United States each year, according to Jillian Peterson, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. of St. Paul, Minn. Firearm suicides account for approximately 60% of all firearm deaths each year.

“The most dangerous thing you’ll do today is get in a car,” said Joel Dvoskin, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona School of Medicine. “And actually, we’ve made it safer.”

But Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado, said society was only beginning to ask “how do we heal collective trauma? How do we recognize that our society is built on layers of trauma? »

“I fear that our collective trauma is getting in the way of what we could do to create a better society,” she said.

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