Mass shootings taking toll on children’s mental health: ‘Our kids should not have to live like this’ – MMHPI – Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute
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Mass shootings taking toll on children’s mental health: ‘Our kids should not have to live like this’

This article was published by the Houston Chronicle on May 23, 2023.

Nora Senske and her classmates sat in a locked basement classroom at Lamar High School for several hours on a recent Monday as police investigated a shooting threat posted on social media. The 17-year-old was mostly confused and hungry during the lunchtime lockdown, she said, but eventually started texting her mother: “Mom, Mom, Mom.”

The messages made Dani Senske’s blood run cold. She checked her email and searched for information online as her mind went to the worst possible outcomes that have played out repeatedly in classrooms across America.

May 24 marks a year since the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Scores more people have been killed in mass shootings across the country since that tragedy, most recently at an outlet mall in a Dallas suburb and at a rural home in Cleveland, Texas, with each shooting sending ripples of fear into the community.

Although lockdowns and threats may now seem routine at school, Senske, a mother and former Houston ISD teacher, said it’s cruel and torturous for parents, teachers and students to live under a cloud of fear and dread that their school may be the next place targeted by a shooter.

“Every single day I have this little pit in the bottom of my stomach, and I make sure that I say, ‘I love you,’ when I drop her off,” she said.

Nearly a third of parents with children in elementary and high school said they were extremely or very worried about a shooting happening at their child’s school, according to a Pew Research Center survey published in October 2022. Another third of parents were not concerned, and the rest of the surveyed parents fell somewhere in between.

The researchers said mothers, Hispanic parents and lower-income families are more likely to be concerned about a school shooting.

Senske, now a private reading interventionist, said the threat of violence has hung over her career in the classroom and her daughter’s time in school. As a teacher, she helped her kindergarten students stay quiet in bathrooms during lockdown drills and requested a baseball bat to keep at the ready in case of an intruder.

“It’s something that’s kind of always lingered in the background and just gotten progressively worse as the years have gone on,” Senske said. “And now it’s just at an untenable point. It’s just ridiculous.”

The mother said she knows Texas has a longstanding gun culture but thinks legislators should require people to jump through a few more hoops to obtain and carry a firearm. The lack of action from Texas lawmakers in the wake of devastating mass shootings is enraging, Senske said.

“Our kids should not have to live like this,” she said.

The onslaught of mass shootings can have an impact on mental health as young people are already coping with increasing rates of anxiety and depression, said Julie Kaplow, executive director for the Trauma and Grief Center at the Hackett Center for Mental Health.

Although many factors are at play, Kaplow said, the rise may in part be attributed to “legitimate worries and fears that they now have because of all the mass shootings that have taken place.”

Hearing about a mass shooting can exacerbate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for children and adolescents who have already experienced a traumatic event, she said. It can also exacerbate grief among those who have lost a loved one.

It’s important for kids to have a trusted adult they can confide in with their worries, fears or questions, Kaplow said. Caregivers should “meet the child where they are,” instead of shutting down conversations about these difficult topics or overwhelming them with too much information, she said.

Gun violence may even shape the way the youngest generation approaches the world, Kaplow said.

“In some ways, this generation is probably going to end up being more cautious because they’ve been exposed to so much tragedy,” she said. “I think that kids now are having those thoughts — Is this a safe place? Is there security here? And sadly that’s happening even when many of them go to school.”

Hayden Cohen, a 19-year-old community college student and Houston ISD graduate, said there is a frustrating disconnect between Texas legislators and people across the state facing the real impacts of gun violence.

“It feels like almost every weekend we hear news about some new shooting, and then during the week, you get news of committees turning down gun reform bills and hearings going awry,” Cohen said.

Students, meanwhile, live daily with safety protocols such as clear backpacks, lockdown drills and metal detectors guarding a school’s single entrance.

“There’s just constant reminders that you can get shot, this is a dangerous place to be — but you’re in a classroom,” Cohen said.

Gun violence extends beyond school and mass shootings of course, with increasing numbers of children and adolescents dying from gun homicides and suicides nationally and locally. The Pew Research Center found that gun deaths among children and teens in the U.S. rose 50 percent from 2019 to 2021.

Juvenile gun deaths climbed 76 percent from 2018 to 2022 in Harris County, according to the medical examiner’s office, and nearly two dozen kids have died already this year.

At graduation last spring, Cohen sat next to an empty chair for a classmate at Energy Institute High School who died in a shooting in April 2022.

Nariah Champion, 18, was fatally shot by a 17-year-old boy allegedly playing with a gun at an apartment complex, according to authorities, cutting short her life before she could attend prom, don her cap and gown, and head to college to pursue her dreams of becoming a lawyer.

Champion’s mother accepted her diploma at graduation, and her classmates honored her as a prom queen, Cohen said.

It’s scary to know that countless people are mourning for loved ones lost to gun violence or touched by the threat in some way, Cohen said.

“I went to a March for Our Lives rally a while ago… Everybody who got up and spoke knew somebody who’d been killed by gun violence,” Cohen said. “Everyone has been in real lockdowns. Everyone’s school has had threats of being shot up. Everyone has had personal experiences.”

The mass shooting earlier this month at an outlet mall in Allen, a Dallas suburb, struck particularly close to home for Emma Bittner.

The 23-year-old grew up in Frisco, an adjacent suburb, and frequented the mall for back-to-school shopping and hangouts in high school. Her parents had shopped there a few weeks before the shooting.

The news that a gunman had killed eight people and injured others at her hometown mall sent her into fight-or-flight mode, Bittner said. She spent the rest of the afternoon refreshing her phone for updates and the following days reading heartbreaking posts from acquaintances on social media.

“I was immediately like, is my family OK? Is everyone I know alright?” she said. “It was so scary to think that there were so many people shopping for graduation dresses and just going about their weekend out with their family — and then it turned into absolute utter chaos and tragedy.”

Bittner said the threat of gun violence has sparked fears in other situations, too, including a lockdown in high school in which she and other students did not know whether it was a drill.

In college at the University of Texas at Austin, she had to shelter in place during a meeting following reports that there was an active shooter on campus, which turned out to be false. Another time, she and other students checked on their friends’ safety and tuned into the police scanner to find out information after someone was shot on campus.

It’s important to continue having difficult conversations about gun violence, Bittner said, with peers and adults. She believes young people are instrumental in change and policy reform is what can create real change to make the country safer.

“People need to listen to young adults because we are the ones who are almost experts on the situation. So many people have lived through at least one experience with gun violence. We know that people in power have thoughts and prayers for us, we know that they care — that is the bare minimum,” she said. “We want to be heard. It sometimes feels like we’re screaming and no one is listening.”

This story is available on the Houston Chronicle’s website here.