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The senseless killings and injuries from the latest round of youth shootings in Richmond since Easter threaten the mental and physical health of all metropolitan residents, not just the direct victims, according to Debra Riggs, executive director of the Virginia Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). 


Children and young adults are particularly susceptible to long-term effects from such trauma. “Experiencing adolescent violence such as ongoing shootings is an example of an adverse childhood experience (ACE) and is associated with poorer mental health outcomes later in life. It is among the ACEs that strongly contribute to injury and violence among adolescents,” she said, citing NASW and other research. 


“Adolescents with ACEs may be less able to successfully navigate this transformational stage because of the damaging effects of traumatic experiences on their emotional and cognitive development and lack of positive supports.” 


Helping children and young adults build resiliency rather than default to violence is an effective tactic social workers are trained to employ to reduce these risks, but their jobs are made more difficult when youth repeatedly experience the same dramatic and unpredictable trauma or its ongoing threat. 


Research concludes that children exposed to violent crime such as school and street shootings—even when not direct victims—are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol; suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD; fail or flounder at school; and become delinquent or engage in criminal behavior. This victimization reaction is particularly hard on vulnerable individuals such as those living in poverty or suffering other mental conditions. 


Sadly, adults—from family and friends to neighbors and other local residents—often experience psychological harm from community gun violence, too. Studies find that while the mental well-being of violent crime victims unsurprisingly decrease, so, too, do that of local nonvictims. 


As the largest body of behavioral health professionals in Virginia and the country, social workers are deeply involved in treating crime victims and connecting people to relevant resources. They also advocate for safer gun policies such as strong enforcement of Virginia’s red-flag law, which temporarily removes firearms from people experiencing mental health crises and reduces suicide-by-gun rates.  


However, policymakers and the public can do more to help prevent youth-based and other shootings, including expanding funding for violence prevention programs in schools and training more law enforcement officers in ways to recognize and diffuse situations in which a person is having a mental crisis.

 

We were deeply disappointed that Gov. Youngkin vetoed so many evidence-based, common-sense gun safety bills earlier in April such as banning firearms on public college campuses and refusing the addition of language to clarify circumstances when the red-flag law can kick in such as when a student threatens to “shoot up” a school.  


The NASW Virginia Chapter extends our deepest sympathies to the families of the eight children and teenagers whose young lives were taken so abruptly and tragically since Easter. These are only the latest in the hundreds of stories of other victims injured or killed by firearms in the past several years in Richmond and Virginia. 


This must stop—for the mental and behavioral health of children and adults. As the General Assembly reconvenes April 17, we call on legislators to come together to override Gov. Youngkin’s gun-related vetoes, so Virginia can 

  • toughen gun safety laws, 

  • expand gun violence prevention efforts beyond temporary curfews and similar containment tactics, and

  • increase funding to evidence-based solutions to end these needless tragedies.    

For more information, please visit NASW’s Gun Violence site to download the Social Justice Brief “Gun Violence in American Culture” and other resources detailing how social workers can and are working to address the issue. The chapter also recommends listening to “Ending Our Nation’s Gun Violence Epidemic: A Brady Campaign Update (Feb. 14, 2024) on the Social Work Talks podcast.  

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