Sitting in a lounge chair and sipping on a hot cup of chai, after a relaxed dinner, a teacher begins to review lessons planned for the next morning’s class. In another time zone it’s the end of a school day, and as students walk through the school halls they’re thinking about how much homework teachers assigned and worrying about being late for band practice. Somewhere in between these time zones, a parent is coming home from work and feeling too tired to cook so thinking about grabbing something from Burger King to bring home for the family. 

Those are typical and expected thoughts of different people connected to schools through work, youth and children. However, gun violence in school systems has shifted the mental focus of teachers, students and parents. On a daily basis, their minds ponder the disturbing reality of questions: What can I do to avoid being shot and protect my students at the same time? Where can I take my child that’s safe so they can learn and grow? How do I manage what’s happening to me after the shooting in my school? Who can I trust? When will the gun violence end?

Gun Violence Disrupts Psychosocial Safety

According to Dr. Anat Geva, a licensed clinical psychologist, psychosocial safety is successfully having the safety, predictability, knowledge, and confidence to do what is expected of us and what we expect from our day, with minimal interference, and having the ability to successfully manage our daily challenges, both internally and externally.  

Geva emphasizes that the trauma resulting from gun violence in the school system disrupts the psychosocial safety of students, teachers and parents to the point of them being unable to recoup, go back to a state of autopilot, and confidently go through their lives.

“For a student, they expect to come in, get their academics, socialize and engage in activities.  When their life is at stake coming to school then it completely violates their ability to operate in the capacity of being a student and being a person. For teachers, the same thing. They might ask themselves if they could have seen it coming, if there was more that they could have done, should have done; so, a lot of guilt. For parents, who are the most removed, it feels like a complete loss of control,” she says.

Gun violence in schools can lead to students no longer trusting in, and maybe even feeling betrayed, by the system, according to Geva who formerly worked in a public school system.

“Children and adolescents are very highly dependent on their caregiver’s authority to create a structure for them, to create the container within they can operate, they can bounce around, they can experiment, they can explore and a lot of times push boundaries,” she explains. “When they see that their container, that the framework, be it parents or administration or the school, has not been able to protect them, to contain them, on the very basic level of just keeping them alive, keeping them physically safe, it makes it very scary, for a lot of them, and it creates a breach of trust.” 

She believes that repairing psychosocial safety after gun violence requires working on the physical safety of the school, community and environment, and that the repairs be relayed very clearly to all parties involved. She identifies the importance of establishing long-term goals of inclusivity and unity as another way to try and reestablish the psychosocial safety of students.

“We also need to, longer term, think of inclusivity and furthering the notion of unity within a school so that everyone in the school feels part of it, as opposed to opposing it,” she says. “If there is a way of including those students that feel particularly marginalized, that would be a long-term goal to enhance that inclusivity and hopefully also provide a buffer going forward, so that there won’t be as much pain and potential hopelessness for students in the school to later want to come back and retaliate, as well as enough connections, that should some students feel alienated they will have some connection that the school and or other people will be informed of that.”

Geva, who works with clients on crisis, trauma, grief and loss at Family Care Center in Lone Tree, says the topic of gun violence in the school system moved her to emphasize the importance of honoring one’s trauma, as opposed to being defined by it.

“We live in a world where crisis and traumatic events are prevalent, but traumatic events do not need to define us,” she stresses. “The difference between experiencing traumatic events and being damaged by them is our ability to honor them, hold them sacred, and take the necessary action to repair.” 

Mental Health and Mental Wellness after Gun Violence

Dr. Anthony Young, a mental health professional with a doctorate in clinical psychology, defines mental health as, “The successful performance of mental functions resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with others, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity.” 

The state of one’s mental health, whether an adult or a child, is dependent upon where they are in terms of their mental wellness. He says that mental health and wellness exist on a continuum. He believes that most people exist somewhere in the middle, depending on what is happening in their lives. If something traumatic happens, individuals move toward the opposite end of the continuum “toward being in psychological distress.”

“Students are less capable of having the psychological tools to cope with violence, many teachers might be afraid to even work in schools because of the threat of gun violence, and parents may feel a sense of helplessness, being unable to protect their children while they are at school,” he says.

Promoting safety from gun violence at schools, according to Young, could begin from within by teaching social, emotional and life skills such as alternatives to violence, anger management, and critical thinking skills, so that children can develop the resilience to cope with conditions that they cannot control rather than acting out in violence with a gun. 

He feels that a safe environment should be created to allow students, teachers and parents to not only engage in appropriate help-seeking behaviors, but to have the resources available for them because they “may not feel that they have permission to seek help, because of the stigma that’s attached to anyone who may have a mental health challenge.” 

Mental illness is a term that refers collectively to all mental disorders and health conditions involving alterations in thinking, mood, behavior, or a combination of them. It is associated with distress and impaired functioning. 

Because of the stigma associated with the term, Young prefers to refer to it as mental wellness. “I would rather refer to ‘mental illness’ in terms of ‘mental wellness’ or having mental challenges, because all human beings have mental challenges, irrespective of wealth, age, ethnicity, or cultural group. It is part of the human condition we all experience to some extent or another all throughout our lives. Mental illness has a strong stigma attached to it and no one wants to be considered to be ill.”

Addressing Mental Distress with Mindfulness

The stress of gun violence in schools affects learning and leads to distress, being on edge and anger.

“When students are feeling any type of mental distress it may be very hard to learn, so their grades may suffer, or some students might even avoid going to school because of the fear and all of the negative emotions associated with gun violence that they may have witnessed at school,” says Young. “Educators may experience a fair amount of distress in terms of depression, anger and heightened sense of awareness or alertness. They may overreact to situations that they normally would not overreact to. Parents may experience anger for the school system’s inability to create a safe setting for their children, or they may have other challenges such as an increase or the initiation of substance use. The same could apply to educators and students as well.”

He adds, “Parents could also become overprotective to the point of smothering their children out of fear that something might happen to them, and in the extreme scenario, students might feel that they have to carry weapons themselves to defend themselves against the gun violence in the school.”

He points out that it is not natural to walk around in a heightened state of watchfulness or alertness because it increases the physiological indicators of stress, causing the person to walk around tense all the time. When this happens, he says, they should get mental help for it.

For students of color, he stresses that they have particular challenges because they may be in social environments in and out of school that may not be protective for them, and the feeling of being unprotected creates physiological changes, which increase stress hormones.

“It’s very important that educators and parents are very mindful that our students are under a lot of stress (from gun violence in schools), and we have to implement proactive ways to help them cope rather than ignoring it,” says Young, who serves as president of the Denver-Rocky Mountain Association of Black Psychologists.

Some mindfulness techniques he shares involve parents listening to their children, paying attention to what is going on with them, and spending more quality time with them so that they feel more comfortable sharing what their stressors are.

He recognizes, “There may not be a lot of therapists of color, but there are therapists available, and we need to use whatever resources are there. We can’t wait for there to be a critical mass of therapists of color because that may not happen in our lifetime, but we have to make sure that those therapists that are working with our children are able to use culturally congruent methods of helping our children cope with their distress. Gun violence is a horrible thing for a child to deal with.”

Overcoming Barriers with Nonjudgmental Attention  and Resources

Barriers to students receiving mental health services after experiencing gun violence in schools, according to Young, involve their inability to have the words to describe what they are feeling emotionally and fear of judgement.

“Anger may come out as depression or because children oftentimes do not have the emotional literacy to properly label emotions, they may mislabel emotions. They may say they’re mad when what they are feeling is sad and depressed,” he says. “Parents and teachers can listen very closely to students and encourage them to speak about whatever distress they’re experiencing, without judgement and to have readily available resources that they can tap into within the school (which would make student engagement in getting the help that they need more likely).”

He adds, “Adults can be quite judgmental, particularly toward people in distress, particularly toward children. Children may shut down, they may not want to share because they may be labeled by their parents and educators as being weak or being dumb or something negative.”

Mental health resources that Young references include: the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration (BHA), Denver Center for Mental Health, Aurora Mental Health Center, and Jefferson County Mental Health Center. There are also behavioral health professionals that exist as private practitioners such as licensed professional counselors, clinical social workers, psychologists, and certified addiction counselors, as well as non-profit organizations that provide mental health counseling, he notes.

“The topic of gun violence in schools hits home because I grew up in Chicago where there was a lot of gun violence in the community but not in the schools because the school culture was nurturing from the teachers, and from each other, which created a safe environment, which is different from today’s school culture in Chicago and Colorado,” he laments. “I fear for my grandchildren in school because of the constant barrage of gun violence within the school and within the community. As long as we are not addressing gun violence within the community, it is going to be in the school. We have to somehow figure out how to address gun violence in a proactive way; we need to provide the psychosocial educational tools within the schools so that students will seek out nonviolent ways of resolving their difficulties and managing their anger.”

Editor’s Note: Recommended mental health resources include:

The Behavioral Health Administration of Colorado

WellPower (formerly known as the Mental Health Center of Denver)

Aurora Mental Health and Recover

Mental Health Services in Jefferson County