Gun Violence Associated with Increased Likelihood of Depression in Mothers
Please note: this article discusses gun violence, which may be a sensitive topic and/or triggering for some readers.
By Annalise Lane
Gun violence is becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States; since 2001, the number of active shooter incidents per day has been increasing. By March of this year, a record of over 100 mass shootings (defined as an incident in which at least four people, not including the shooter, are shot) had already occurred in the US. Rates of gun violence in the United States are far greater than those in the majority of other countries. Importantly, gun violence events are experienced disproportionately by racial and ethnic minority communities, such as Black and Latino populations. For example, research shows that Black boys and men are the most likely groups to be victims of gun violence, as well as the most likely groups to be exposed to gun violence. Rates of gun assault injuries, homicides, and fatal police shootings are, respectively, 18, 3, and 10 times greater in Black populations than those in white populations.
Events of gun violence have reverberating health consequences among those they impact. For example, research1 has shown that children who are exposed to gun violence, either directly (i.e., surviving an event of gun violence) or indirectly (i.e., witnessing or hearing about gun violence), may experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. Further, compared to individuals who have never witnessed fatal gun violence events, those who have are more likely2 to experience psychotic symptoms, distress, and depression. Given that the same racial and ethnic minority communities who most often experience gun violence are those who experience health disparities, such as decreased access to health care and insurance,3 the health impacts of gun violence in these communities are especially and unjustly debilitating.
One population that has not yet been closely studied in the context of the health impacts of gun violence is mothers. This is a particularly important topic given that previous studies have shown how mothers’ health, particularly their emotional health, can impact that of their children and family.4 In turn, disruptions to children’s emotional health can negatively influence behavioral development and attachment styles.5 Thus, understanding the relationship between gun violence and mothers’ emotional health is an important component of mitigating the effects of gun violence and health disparities in impacted communities. A study by Christine Leibbrand, Frederick Rivara, and Ali Rowhani-Rahbar of the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology and the Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program, both housed within the University of Washington, published an article in late 2020 on this topic.
The article, titled “Gun Violence Exposure and Experiences of Depression Among Mothers,” describes a study that examined the relationship between gun violence exposure and experiences and the occurrence of depression in mothers. This study utilized data from 4,587 mothers, a subset of individuals who participated in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS). Data collected by the FFCWS comes from 20 random US cities with populations of at least 200,000. The FFCWS oversampled mothers of lower socioeconomic status; in this case, low socioeconomic status was defined as mothers who were unmarried and low-income, though low socioeconomic status can be defined in a variety of ways and can also encompass other characteristics, such as educational status. Oversampling means that the FFCWS made an effort to recruit a greater proportion of these mothers in their sample, even though these mothers typically make up a smaller proportion of the US population. In this instance, the oversampling process allowed researchers using data from the FFCWS to be able to better examine factors that impact the well-being of children and families in the United States.
The study found that, compared to mothers who have not witnessed a shooting in their neighborhood or community, mothers who have witnessed at least one shooting are between 32% and 60% more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms. However, the study’s findings should be considered alongside limitations. For example, the FFCWS data used in this study was collected every two years. Each time they completed the survey, mothers were asked whether they witnessed an episode(s) of gun violence in the past 12 months. This means that the data may not have accurately captured all mothers who experienced gun violence. Other limitations relate to constraints imposed by the type of statistical analysis techniques the researchers used.
Despite these limitations, this study offers important insight into how gun violence impacts mothers’ mental health, an area of research that had not been previously explored in great depth. This study also emphasizes the importance of additional resources, such as improved access to mental health facilities, in mitigating the negative health impacts that gun violence imparts on families.
1 Turner, H. A., Mitchell, K. J., Jones, L., Hamby, S., Wade, R., Beseler, C. L. (2019). Gun Violence Exposure and Posttraumatic Symptoms Among Children And Youth. JOURNAL OF TRAUMATIC STRESS, 6(32), 881-889. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22466
2 Smith, M. E., Sharpe, T. L., Richardson, J., Pahwa, R., Smith, D., & DeVylder, J. (2020). The impact of exposure to gun violence fatality on mental health outcomes in four urban U.S. settings. Social Science & Medicine, 246, 112587. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112587
4 Bagner, D., Pettit, J., Lewinsohn, P., & Seeley, J. (2010). Effect of ma ternal depression on child behavior: A sensitive period? Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 29(7), 699–707.
Annalise is a second year Master of Public Health in Epidemiology student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where her primary concentration is psychiatric epidemiology. In her free time, Annalise enjoys listening to music, running, and spending time with friends and family.