‘Constant Anxiety’: How Gun Violence Affects the Mental Health of Today’s Teens

Mary Panitz was a freshman at Rockledge High School when a bus driver in her community reported that there was a student pointing a rifle walking onto her school campus. After being barricaded in a classroom for two hours, seeing her classmates cry and witnessing SWAT officers pointing guns at students, an extremely distraught Panitz and her peers were told the school shooter warning was a false alarm. Although no one was hurt and the school officials never spoke of it afterwards, the toll of this false alarm is one of many examples of the emotional cost of the constant threat of gun violence in American schools.

According to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, since 1970, there have been 1,924 school shooting incidents in the US, with 2021 having the greatest number at 249. Hundreds of thousands of children have been affected by gun violence at school, but millions have been impacted by constant media coverage of school shootings across the nation.

Even for those who are not involved in a shooting or false alarm, media coverage alone or close proximity can be a trigger for stress and anxiety. 15-year-old Abigail Finnerty, who lives 20 minutes away from Oxford High School, where four students were killed in Nov. 2021, has personal experience with the shockwaves that shootings cause in a community.

“[The shooter] used to go to my elementary school, so in another world there’s a good chance that it could have been my high school,” Finnerty said. “I didn’t go to school for three days… nobody could sleep for a week or so. It definitely freaked everyone out a lot.”

Finnerty, a rising sophomore at Clarkston High School in Clarkston, Michigan, recounts the copycat threats her school received in the days after the shootings, the panic and paranoia within her community, and her resulting inability to truly feel safe at school. After the closeness of this experience, she has become more aware of the lack of safety measures to prevent these events and the realness of the threat of gun violence, though she said her vigilance, due to the frequency of these incidents, has remained the same.

“I think I had most of the same opinion that there needs to be some kind of change, but I think for me and others it really brought it right into reality.” Finnerty said. “I am… usually trying to keep an eye out, and be aware of my surroundings, but… I guess I’ve sort have always done it.”

Similarly, Panitz, when speaking of the main cause of her anxiety about violent occurrences, said she “… [doesn’t] know if it was this specific incident that was apart of it or just the rise of shootings in general and knowing about other shootings near me.”

Finnerty and Panitz’s stories point to the effects of being closely affected by the threat of a shooting, as well as the consequences of the frequency of school shootings in the media. Even if children aren’t directly involved in school shootings, they are significantly affected by them, according to Kira Riehm, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Anxiety and stress in teenagers has been linked to higher rates of several diseases, poor performance in school and further mental health problems.

Neither students have been getting involved in efforts to prevent gun violence, but both acknowledge the need to make change in order to save lives and ease pain across the nation.

“I think that change is needed because it’s happened too many times for this to be a random one off,” says Finnerty. “All of these incidents change so many people and it feels like people only really change or care when it happens somewhere close.”

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