Research In Action

Research In Action

The Spillover Effects of Firearm Violence

After an episode of gun violence, a typical local news headline may read, “Three dead and 10 injured in shooting in South Philadelphia.” The article will describe the scene, the injuries of victims directly shot, and police activity. The article will then end with information about the suspect and their consequences. After this, the news cycle covering this event is over. 

What is almost always missed by traditional media is the vast number of people indirectly impacted by gun violence. A single neighborhood murder can impact as many as 200 people in a community. Media, policymakers, and healthcare professionals have a responsibility to amplify and address the spillover effects and secondary trauma from gun violence that impacts family members, friends, communities, first responders, and other indirect co-victims. 

How Exposure to Gun Violence Impacts Physical and Mental Health 

Gun violence impacts the lived experiences of youth and families in many ways. For example, a caregiver of a 14-year-old boy told me she homeschooled him for fear he would get shot on his walk to school. This story is not uncommon amongst youth who have exposure to gun violence. Most of my patients in South Philadelphia have been impacted by gun violence in some way. In fact, studies estimate that the likelihood of knowing a gun violence victim in the United States over a person’s lifetime is 99.85%. 

Starting from birth, violence is seen a social determinant of health which disproportionately impacts Black adolescents because of policies and practices rooted in structural racism that have led to economic disinvestment, educational inequities, and opportunity gaps. At the community level, individuals who live in neighborhoods impacted by gun violence have higher rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, poorer mental health days, and poorer sleep. Another study conducted by my CHOP and Center for Violence Prevention (CVP) colleague Dr. Aditi Vasan showed that youth exposed to violence had higher rates of unmet health needs, trouble paying medical bills, delayed medical and mental health care, and increased use of acute care medical services. 

The Secondary Trauma of Gun Violence 

As a general pediatrician who has cared for victims of gun violence, I have noticed the personal toll gun violence has had on me. Many healthcare workers and first responders develop moral injury and elevated rates of PTSD from persistently caring for persons impacted by gun violence. One study described the experiences of nurses responding to mass shootings and highlighted how nurses felt overwhelmed, overrun, feelings of numbness, and inability to process such devastation. 

So the next time you read a headline about a gun violence event, think not only about the victims, but also the lasting impact on an entire community of individuals. Think about how we, as healthcare workers, policymakers, researchers, and community members, can support and provide adequate care to affected families, communities, and first-responders. This core work of CVP encompasses several key programs: the Community Violence and Trauma Support programs, which promote physical and emotional health and safety for youth and families impacted by trauma and/or violence; the Stress-Less Initiative, a trauma-informed group model to address and proactively buffer against secondary traumatic stress; and the Gun Safety Program, which encourages providers to have safety-centered conversations with families about the presence of firearms in homes where children live or visit. 

For more information on gun violence prevention and advocacy efforts at CHOP, click here.