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Triggers of pain: The impact of gun violence on mental health

An illustrated black handgun dripping with a liquid on a red background.

A PBS article on gun violence in Chicago has a quote that is just as true today as it was when it was written in 2017. It says, “Every time a person gets shot, especially a young person, there are literally hundreds of people who are affected by that shooting.”

Let’s keep that quote in mind as we take a look at some statistics, specifically in Chicago. In 2020 – even when communities were locked down and kept indoors for most of the year – 3,261 people were still wounded in shootings. This was actually an increase in the previous year and resulted in 769 deaths. 

In 2022, the number of shootings in Chicago was nearly a third higher than in 2019, with 868 deaths. Notably, the reports of shootings went down, meaning that people felt less safe or inclined to get police involved. Looking at the bigger picture, a concerning study from the University of Cambridge found that half of Chicagoans will witness a shooting by the age of 40

The effect of just one shooting

For any one shooting, the ripple effects are substantial. Bear in mind, this isn’t just gang violence or crime – it also includes mental health issues such as suicide or mass shootings in schools or elsewhere. Whatever the reason for the shooting, hundreds of people are affected by every single one

There is of course the victims themselves, who may or may not survive. If they don’t, it is a life unnecessarily cut short; and if they do, they will likely be changed in some way forever, whether physically or mentally.

Beyond the victim, there are the immediate family and friends of the victim who will suffer the shock and grief of what’s taken place. Then there are the witnesses, who often see more than one shooting and can develop trauma reactions as a result. Finally, there are the first responders and anti-violence interventionists who almost certainly have to witness difficult situations of this kind on a regular basis.

Demographics at risk

The Cambridge study, which has been ongoing since the 1990s, sheds light on the different demographics that are at higher risk of gun violence or witnessing it, contributing to mental health trauma as a result. 

White residents in Chicago, for example, were less likely than their Black or Hispanic counterparts to witness gun violence. In total, 25% of White Chicago residents can expect to see an incident before turning 40 – less than half the rate of Black or Hispanic individuals. 

Worryingly, over 7% of Black and Hispanic people have been shot before turning 40, with the average age at just 17 years old. As children and teenagers’ brains are still developing, the trauma they experience can be particularly acute. If your child has been involved in an incident, directly or indirectly, keep an eye on them to see if they exhibit any signs of mental health conditions.

The mental health effects of gun violence

Such high rates of gun crime are having a lasting negative impact on the wider community in many ways, but particularly when it comes to mental health. 

As the leader of the study, Dr Charles Lanfear, from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology says: 

“Existing evidence suggests that the long-term stress of exposure to firearm violence can contribute to everything from lower test scores for school kids to diminished life expectancy through heart disease.” 

Dr Lanfear goes on to say that, “A substantial portion of Chicago’s population could be living with trauma as a result of witnessing shootings and homicides, often at a very young age.”

The mental health effects of this are wide-ranging. A report published in the National Library of Medicine says that a “large body of research has demonstrated the harm associated with exposure to gun violence.”  This includes, loss of sleep and increased levels of cortisol, reduced cognitive performance, and even decreased community-level physical and mental health.

Creating change for Chicago communities and individuals

An issue like gun violence has no simple solution. A lot of effort is being put into breaking the cycle of violence and reducing the number of victims directly. 

Institute for Non Violence Chicago

Organizations like the Institute for Non Violence Chicago focus on building up communities. They do this both through preventative action and by supporting individuals who have been affected by this issue. 

Readi Chicago READI Chicago is based on the belief that helping people heal from trauma and develop skills that create pathways to safety and opportunity has the potential to save lives now, and to create greater opportunity and safety over the long-term. Gun Violence Chicago Survivors

Another Chicago-based group that is doing great work to help victims of gun violence is Chicago Survivors. This group is specifically targeted at individuals who have experienced a violent event and offers a program of help, as well as many specific support services. 

Neighborhood-specific services

If you would like to access services as close to your Chicago neighborhood as possible, the City of Chicago offers information on area-specific support. Simply look for the organization closest to your area, or choose another that makes you feel you get the level of support you need. 

National gun violence support 

Support for victims of gun violence isn’t just reserved for those who live in the city. Anybody in the country can gain access to the support they need. 

Sandy Hook Promise

The Sandy Hook mass shooting rocked the nation when it took place, but out of this senseless violence a group has emerged to provide love and support for victims and survivors. Called the Sandy Hook Promise, the group provides access to support networks and services – with particular emphasis placed on supporting child victims. 


The Everytown Gun Safety Support Fund is a national fund that focuses on preventative actions to reduce gun violence It is the largest gun violence prevention fund in the country, focusing on education, research, and litigation. The fund is part of a broader initiative to combat the misuse of firearms, including support for survivors.

Talking is the first step

Even with so many resources and options out there, taking the first step can be daunting. At Mental Health America of Illinois, we offer a wide range of services to help individuals with all kinds of mental health struggles. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin, please reach out to us. We will listen to your story and put you in contact with the best resources and counselors for you. 


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