Op-Ed: It’s Time To Speak Up About The Undiscussed Effects of Gun Violence Trauma

Not all “life-threatening” wounds are physical for gun violence survivors.

It's an experience that is unfortunately pretty common. A crowded party, club or park then suddenly running, gunshots, panic. 

For me, it happened on a typical Spring day. I was at a neighborhood park in Bed Stuy with my son. The park was crowded because it was one of the first beautiful days in months, the sun - and consequently the neighbors - came out of hiding. 

Children were everywhere, elders were congregating on benches, moms and dads were trailing behind curious toddlers. Then, running. 

The first cardinal rule in the hood is simple; if you see people running, run. So we did, but first as parents many of us panicked as we tried to locate our kids. Before I could meet eyes with my then 5-year-old son, gunshots rang out. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop...

No one was injured. Apart from my scarred knees from slamming myself on the ground with my son, there was no physical harm to speak of. 

Police officers didn’t canvas the neighborhood asking neighbors for their statements. There was no news story about it circulating on social media. No one was hit with a bullet, so there was nothing to unpack. Except there was.

I momentarily relieved this experience when I saw the headlines about the shooting at a Clark-Atlanta/ Spelman party. The video of kids running in all directions, their pale, shocked faces, shoes left by the wayside. 

Four young women received what the police called "non-life-threatening" injuries. I beg to differ. Who's to say trauma doesn't threaten lives? 

The “non-life-threatening” aftermath of an encounter with a loaded gun is an experience often dismissed as one survivors should feel gratitude over. 

They get to walk away from the hospital and go on with their lives, while countless others don’t. But whether or not there are fatal wounds and a body count - the mental  trauma and emotional toll of gun violence is too often overlooked.

According to Everytown, a national gun safety initiative, there are over 100,000 gun injuries per year in the US.  That includes people grazed with bullets and people paralyzed by them. That doesn't include the bystanders who also ran for their lives. It doesn't encapsulate the trauma every single person in the vicinity of that gunfire walked away with.

In the Black community, this is expected. After the park incident, I talked to a few of my friends and family and was made to feel a little silly for even feeling concerned.

"Yea it happens."

"You're fine though, right?"

"Damn, people are a trip."

So I brushed off the panic I felt every time I passed the park, the image of my son running towards me asking if the noise was "fireworks", the fear that one of us would see the other get shot at any moment, the cold sweats I broke into each night over the proceeding weeks. I went to work the next day with bandaged knees and pretended everything was normal, but I didn't feel normal. I felt afraid.

For the 200 or so students at the Clark-Atlanta/ Spelman post-orientation party, they now walk with trauma as they enter into one of the most important chapters of their life. Starting as a freshman in college with the newly branded awareness that no one can protect them is more sobering than kids at that age should have to feel. 

Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis offered her take on how trauma in situations like this have a lasting impact. “Trauma can affect the mind, body, and spirit,” said Dr. Bryant-Davis, “The brain may have difficulty focusing, concentrating, or remembering, which also makes it difficult to make decisions.” 

She went on to explain that physical symptoms are common as well. “Somatic complaints are common in the Black community. These are physical symptoms without a medical explanation such as migraines, nausea, backache, and muscle ache.” 

The Black community is disproportionately affected by and exposed to gun violence, so we’ve learned other ways to cope. The Clark-Atlanta/ Spelman shooting might have slipped beneath the radar because of the media’s focus on mass shootings that kill shocking numbers of people at random. 

The event rendered 4 wounded by gun graze or non-fatal shots. But if we continue to weigh our trauma against the low-ball expectations of white America or mainstream media who hype down anything that isn’t sensational or excessively grotesque - we’ll continue to hold in trauma and pain that we deserve to release.

Dr. Bryant-Davis urges anyone who has witnessed or experienced gun violence to proactively seek healing. “Steps to healing include establishing safety, self-care, education about the effects, building trust, mourning losses, processing anger, facing memories, shifting distorted thoughts, healthy coping, resisting shame and self-blame, healing self-worth, thriving or post-traumatic growth.”

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