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Monday, July 22, 2024

How gun violence creates collective psychological trauma and social divides

Incessant media coverage ingrains biases, fosters a paranoid, mistrustful society

After decades of international peace and a domestic sense of invulnerability, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 left Americans feeling shattered and helpless — their very psyche deeply wounded. Since then, the same sense of vulnerability that came with the fall of the Twin Towers is creeping in with the onslaught of harrowing, yet almost routine, mass shootings that plague our nation.

This time, however, the enemy may not be an overseas terrorist with radical religious beliefs, but rather our own people — the neighbor you saw every morning walking his dog, the quiet guy in your math class, the person who sat next to you getting a haircut. The American psyche’s wounds are being opened once more and we are grimacing in pain.

Mass shootings have affected the dynamic of American public life in two important ways. The first deals with the collective psychological trauma inflicted on the masses. The second explores the subtle yet ubiquitous cultural, religious and social divides that these mass shootings have created.

Dr. Laura Miller, a social worker and psychotherapist, explained in a CBSDC interview last year that the collective trauma many Americans experience has perpetuated a daily defense mechanism that “can resemble the post-traumatic response of actual trauma survivors […] many people become more hyper-vigilant, less trusting of strangers and […] more paranoid in spaces they once associated with safety.”

Instead of being a safe place where refugees seek asylum, America has become a land filled with people who are distrusting, defensive and paranoid, giving way to a deeply flawed collective attitude. Dr. Miller goes on to state that those with anxious or depressive tendencies also tend to be vulnerable to the psychological impact of mass shootings, with the shootings reaffirming their pre-existing notions that the world is a dangerous or cruel place.

According to one survey, 41.6 percent of college students list anxiety as their top concern and 36.4 percent list depression. College students dealing with pre-existing mental health conditions — conditions compounded by the recent increase in media coverage of gun violence — are bound to have feelings of hopelessness, stress and paranoia, all of which take an indescribable toll on an individual’s psychological well-being.

The incessant and often sensationalized media coverage of gun violence has a profound impact on the cultural, religious and social relationships that exist between the American people, especially between those color and those not. Linking race and criminality has been identified in a study conducted by Color of Change as a neurological process related to the rapid firing of neurons.

Every time a news report portrays a person of color associated with a crime or as a violent criminal — which it does much more often than it does a white person — the neurons in the brain that associate race with criminality fire. And the more often these news reports air, the more the link is triggered, and the more often these neurons fire. Thus, prejudices against

people of color are born. This can potentially lead to an inherent mistrust between people of color and white people.

Think of the tension between white police officers and the black communities they patrol. Following the tragic shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, President Barack Obama reminded the American public that when racial disparities exist within the criminal justice system, trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve break down.

It is important, however, to remember that this mistrust originally stems from that traumatized psyche, which attempts to defend itself by clinging to what it knows. Communities band together, shunning and viewing other communities, cultures and religions with a distrustful eye in an effort to preserve their own safety. Although a unification of those with common characteristics may seem effective, it is superficial and undermines the diversity America has worked so hard to protect. It fosters a cultural divisiveness that must be prevented.

This is not to say that communities must give up their cultural, religious or social identities, but, as Americans, we must strive to learn about and remain open-minded to the multitudes of cultures that surround us. Only then can the walls of mistrust start to come down and our psyche begin to heal.


Few contemporary problems strike a chord among college students like that of gun violence. Tamanna Ahluwalia, a second-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major, wants to take a critical, nuanced approach to an issue which often sees flaming rhetoric dominating the conversation. She will consider the role this nation’s lack of gun control regulation plays in creating a culture of violence, misogyny and instant gratification. Her column is the latest to weigh in on a topic that requires more urgency since the gun-related tragedies in Sandy Hook, Dallas and Orlando.

Written by: Tamanna Ahluwalia — tahluwalia@ucdavis.edu


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