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The impact gun violence is having on society's mental health

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Gun violence has an impact on mental health, and that's true far beyond the communities where a shooting happens. This year, the U.S. has already had more than 30 mass shootings, including the two in California over the last week.

Erika Felix teaches psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ERIKA FELIX: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: How does this relentless toll of mass shootings affect people who might not be directly in the path of the gunfire or even anywhere near it?

FELIX: Yeah. So I think that you can liken these things to, like, a ripple in a pond, where it reverberates out beyond the direct impact. You can see the concentric circles rippling out from that.

SHAPIRO: If we use your analogy of the ripples, let's go closer to where that drop goes into the water. Some communities have much more gun violence than others, and the majority of gun violence is not mass shootings.

FELIX: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What impact does living in that community have on people, even if their loved ones, friends or relatives are not directly in the path of the gun fire?

FELIX: Well, they're under constant stress. For people who have to contend with it every day as they go to work or walk to school, they have elevated levels of hypervigilance. And that erodes our mental health and our physical health.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about mental health consequences broadly. Can you speak specifically about what the actual impact is on people?

FELIX: Yeah. So whether we witness it on the news or live in the community or we were there on site, you can have a significant elevation in emotions of anxiety, worry, problems with sleeping. All of that is completely understandable. And from...

SHAPIRO: Even if you're not in the community? Even if you don't know the people affected?

FELIX: Yes. When we're watching the news, we feel the distress. We have this empathy component of ourselves as human beings. But for some people, especially who experienced the most losses, there is an increased potential for post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, complications and the understandable grief process if you lost a loved one in a violent way.

SHAPIRO: Obviously, the ideal solution would be to end gun violence. But what specific steps can you suggest people take to reduce some of these negative psychological consequences?

FELIX: Yes. In the immediate aftermath, one of the important things is to get social support. We had a mass murder tragedy affect our community.

SHAPIRO: In Santa Barbara.

FELIX: In Santa Barbara in 2014. So what people found most helpful was the activities where they came together as a community. It could even just be a potluck and just be around other people who are experiencing similar things.

SHAPIRO: That's so interesting to me that a vigil, for example, is not just a show of solidarity or a statement of community. It's actually healing.

FELIX: It is. And actually, when I surveyed our students at UCSB following the mass murder tragedy, that was one of the things they found most helpful. And it was the most widely attended. All of that stuff students rated as really helpful in their coping in the immediate aftermath.

SHAPIRO: As members of the media report on these shootings week after week, are there ways you wish news organizations would approach these stories differently that might reduce the harm?

FELIX: I appreciate the shift that I've seen in news media where there's focus on the community and survivors and there's limited coverage on the perpetrator. I think that's been a great shift. I've also really appreciated when the media has gone back to communities that experienced this years ago and just talked about how they're coping in the long-term aftermath, I think is helpful as more and more people contend with this.

SHAPIRO: That's Erika Felix, professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Thank you very much.

FELIX: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC TUCKER SONG, "FWM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.