Gun Violence Exposure and Trauma among Rural Youth

By Slovak, Karen; Singer, Mark | Violence and Victims, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Gun Violence Exposure and Trauma among Rural Youth


Slovak, Karen, Singer, Mark, Violence and Victims


This study compared rural youth exposed to gun violence and rural youth not exposed to gun violence on a number of variables: anger, anxiety, dissociation, depression, posttraumatic stress, total trauma, violent behavior, parental monitoring, and levels of violence in the home, school, and community. One-fourth (25%) of the rural youth in this study reported having been exposed to gun violence at least once. Youth exposed to gun violence reported significantly more anger, dissociation, posttraumatic stress, and total trauma. In addition, youth exposed to the violence of guns reported significantly higher levels of violent behaviors and exposure to violence in other settings and also reported lower levels of parental monitoring. The present study contributes to the growing body of literature addressing the stereotype that rural communities are not immune to the violence of firearms. This stereotype acts as a barrier to mental health practice, research, and policy issues in rural communities.

The accessibility and availability of firearms are central concerns in addressing youth violence. In the United States, every three hours a child is a fatal casualty of firearm violence, which translates into a classroom of children every three days (Edelman, 1995). It has also been estimated that for every homicide, there are 100 assaults as well as the immeasurable number of children who witness these events (DeJong, 1994).

Homicide and suicide are among the leading causes of death among teens (Sugarmann & Rand, 1995) and firearms have increasingly become a puissant agent in these deaths. The rate of firearm-related homicide among 15- to 19-year olds increased 100% from 1985 to 1990 (Fingerhut, in Powell, Sheehan, & Christoffel, 1996) and since the mid-1980s homicides perpetrated by juveniles with guns have quadrupled (Fox, 1996). In addition, it was reported that male youth from all racial and ethnic compositions have a greater likelihood of dying from the fate of gunshots compared to all natural causes combined (Jones & Krisberg, 1994). Furthermore, firearm injury causing permanent disability in youth is estimated to be equal to the number who die from this weapon (Christoffel, 1997).

Although there has been less focus on teen suicide, the reality is that for every two slain youths, one youth commits suicide (Sickmund, Snyder, & Poe-Yamagata, 1997). Suicides for youth under the age of 19 involving firearms increased 38% between 1979 and 1994 (Bilchik, 1997), and the guns used to carry out most adolescent suicides are kept in the home (Brent et al., 1988; Brent et al., 1991; Tanz, in Senturia, Christoffel, & Donovan, 1994).

It is apparent that the accessibility of firearms is an increasing liability in morbidity and mortality of youth; however, the psychological wounds associated with mere exposure to gun violence are often overlooked. The epidemic of firearm injury has created in today's young people a prevailing fear of being shot (Powell, Sheehan, & Christoffel, 1996), a pervasive sense of hopelessness and depression (DuRant, Getts, Cadenhead, Eman, & Woods, 1995). Studies have suggested a relationship between psychological trauma and exposure to guns and shootings. A review of several studies examining trauma in children exposed to war noted that 27% to 48% suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD; McNally, 1993). Pynoos and colleagues (1987) reported that 77 % of the children who witnessed a sniper attack on their school playground had moderate to severe levels of PTSD. Pastore, Fisher, and Friedman (1996), in examining violence exposure and its relationship to other mental health risks, reported an increased risk of mental health problems for those who have witnessed shootings. Slovak and Singer (in press) noted that exposure to gun violence as a victim and/or witness made a strong contribution to youth reports of total psychological trauma.

In deciphering risk factors for gun violence exposure, it is often assjumed that youth residing in urban areas are at utmost risk. …

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