Gun Violence: An epidemic of another kind

By Donna Amaral
Posted 9/16/22

Welcome to Westport Health Notes, a monthly column from the Westport Board of Health (BOH). The goal is to share information with our community about local issues and projects, public health alerts, …

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Gun Violence: An epidemic of another kind

Posted

Welcome to Westport Health Notes, a monthly column from the Westport Board of Health (BOH). The goal is to share information with our community about local issues and projects, public health alerts, and even facts about the scope of responsibility that local Boards of Health manage.

As we have experienced all too often in our country, mass shootings appear epidemic and have been the focus of gun violence. However, more people die every year in the U.S. by suicide using a firearm than by homicide.

Firearms have become a leading cause of death for Americans of any age. One very sobering statistic is that in 2020 it became the leading cause of death of our children and adolescents. This past Memorial Day weekend, 156 people died and 412 were injured in shootings. According to the Gun Violence Archive, by September 6 there were 466 mass shootings this year and there were 30,400-gun related deaths from all sources. More than 1,100 of those deaths were children and adolescents. According to the CDC, approximately 45,222 Americans died in 2020 from firearms whether by homicide, suicide, or by accident. Gun violence is both a personal and community issue and a threat to both the mental and physical health of the public.

This column is not a challenge to gun ownership. It is about how we can keep bullets out of people. It is about how we can work together to prevent gun violence from being a public health crisis in our own community. How can we help our neighbors, friends, and family members in crisis who may have access to a gun? How can we work together to decrease the possibility of someone harming themselves, or another?

Collaboration between Emerson College Engagement Lab, the Mass General Hospital Center for Gun Violence Protection, and the Louis Brown Peace Institute are working together to address and reduce gun violence in Massachusetts. The recently passed Bipartisan Safer Communities Act identifies six initiatives to address gun safety. Three focus on domestic violence, community-based crisis prevention through red flag programs, and funding for mental health programs and school security. Blaming gun violence on mental illness is common and not a useful means to predict violence. Most people with a diagnosed mental illness do not kill or harm others. Mental illness is not the main driver of violence against others. It is more likely a reason for violence against self. Drug and alcohol use are more closely connected to violence of any kind. Study after study show that availability and access to guns increases the risk and has a stronger link to violence than psychosocial issues.

There may be opportunities to intervene before gun violence occurs. There are warning signs or red flags of dangerousness that alert if someone is at risk for harm of self or others. The Violence Project data base shows that four out of five mass shooters showed signs of crisis. The same can be true of those experiencing thoughts of suicide. Loss of a job, a break-up or divorce, and death of a close relationship are some situations that can lead to gun violence. Feeling isolated and alone are red flags identified by those who experience suicidal thoughts, and by those involved in mass shootings. Warning signs or red flags include a change in behavior, demeanor, or appearance; being involved in uncharacteristic arguments or fights; and threatening, telling, or suggesting plans for violence towards self or others.

Whether diagnosed with a mental illness or not, most mass shootings developed from a sense of being wronged and that the violent act is the only solution to relieve the distress they are experiencing. Ending their emotional distress is also the reason for those who turn the gun on themselves.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, the Board of Health sponsored a presentation “Mental Health First-Aid”. Child and Family Emergency Services and Bay Cove Emergency Services addressed the process to access help and resources available to our community. Brenda Venice, the President of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Bristol County focused on family needs during a mental health crisis and the resources available through her organization. The presentation was filmed on May 14 and is available on Westport Community TV. To learn more about warning signs and how to help others in emotional distress please view this important community education event at www.westportma.com/westport-community-television.

Any intervention to help someone in distress should emphasize respect, dignity, hope, and inclusion. Connection, not isolation, is critical. How do we individually connect with the person who is struggling and in crisis, and how do we connect them to appropriate help? We now have a direct phone line to help those in a mental health crisis by calling 988. Anyone can call 988 to receive support, guidance, and help from trained personnel to access local services for the individual in need. When appropriate, 988 staff may contact a mobile crisis unit that may provide help that could come to Westport.

Being aware of red flags and knowing the warning signs that our families, friends, and neighbors may experience, and accessing the appropriate help when they are in distress, are ways we can work together to prevent gun violence of any kind in our own community.

Amaral is a Psychiatric Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist, and a Town of Westport Board of Health member.

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