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A majority of Americans are nervous about gun violence: What does that mean for mental health?

2nd Amendment activists at an open carry rally at the Texas state capitol on Jan. 1, 2016 in Austin, Texas. (Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
2nd Amendment activists at an open carry rally at the Texas state capitol on Jan. 1, 2016 in Austin, Texas. (Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

Have you ever been to the movies and found yourself checking the exits? A new survey suggests more than 62% of people do due to fears about gun violence and terrorism.

Of 2,000 people surveyed by the security firm Evolv Technology, 81% said they’re “anxious” about gun violence in particular.

This year alone in the U.S., more than 42,700 deaths have been attributed to gun violence so far — whether it be homicide, murder, defensive gun use, unintentional or suicide.

So what impact is this fear having on Americans’ mental health?

While the data collected is only from one survey, the results are “pervasive,” says Joel Dvoskin, a clinical and forensic psychologist who served on the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Reducing Gun Violence.

“Even the groups that were a little bit less anxious than other groups, their anxiety levels were still very high,” he says.

Jews reported feeling especially anxious about gun violence after synagogue shootings; Muslims said they feel on high alert due to anti-Muslim rhetoric; and Christians voiced anxiety due to attacks on Christian churches, he says.

“At the end of it, you come thinking, who’s left out? Who doesn’t get to feel anxious?” Dvoskin asks.

This jives with Dvoskin’s professional experiences talking with people about gun violence. After two years of limiting exposure to large groups of people because of the pandemic, he says people are also concerned about going to a concert or a sports game out of fear of guns.

“It’s hurting our mental health because it prevents us from doing things that are enjoyable and make us feel good,” he says.

There are many people who feel safer or less afraid if they own a gun as a means to protect themselves. That notion is supported when gun sales increase every time there’s a high-profile mass shooting, he explains.

But statistically, Dvoskin says having a gun in the home doesn’t make people safer. Rather, he says it gives the illusion of safety.

“The main danger is not a stranger coming into your home and trying to kill you. The main danger is in a moment of despair or rage, that people make stupid decisions,” he says. “And all of this anxiety and fear and anger is increasing the amount of violence in our society.”

While Dvoskin thinks there’s a relationship between fear about gun violence and it leading to future gun violence, he says it’s not a direct one-to-one correlation. He does think the chances for gun violence increase as society collectively becomes more distressed, he says.

The survey focuses on adults, but children are the center of this issue. There’s a generation of kids now who are being trained for the possibility that they might be targeted in their classrooms — which could lead to mental health consequences down the road, he says.

First and most importantly, when talking to your kids about gun violence, Dvoskin says “don’t lie to them.” When children are scared, they need to trust their parents. He says kids are smarter than we think they are — and that we’re not as good at lying as we believe we are.

So how do parents know how much to divulge to their kids?

“Easy. Just answer their questions. Don’t tell them everything you know. Just answer the question but do it honestly,” he says. “Creating safe spaces is hugely important so that we can tell kids things that we’re doing to keep them safer.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.


Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.