Sometimes it’s hard to get our heads around statistics and comprehend what they mean, but the findings of a new study on our children’s exposure to violence are easy to grasp — and stunning in their scope.
One in four — or more specifically 26.5% — school-age children in the U.S., ages 6 to 17, has been directly exposed to violence involving a weapon, such as a knife, gun, stick or rock, either as a witness or a victim — violence that can increase their chances of depression, anxiety and aggression, according to the study, published in the journal Pediatrics.
One in four.
Just let that sit there for a minute.
“The numbers were higher than I expected. That’s a lot of kids,” said Kimberly Mitchell, one of the co-authors of the study.
That is more than the national rates of children who have suicidal thoughts, who have been victimized sexually or who have been maltreated by a caregiver, said Mitchell, a research associate professor of psychology at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
“These are all obviously big policy concerns, so I think the point is, this needs to be a policy concern, also.”
The study, which was part of the Second National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, involved 4,500 children and youths ages 2 to 17.
It also found that children who were exposed to violence involving a lethal weapon such as a gun or knife were “significantly more likely” to suffer from depression, anxiety, anger or aggression than children who were not exposed to such weapon violence — even after factoring out variables that could cause trauma, such as physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse, Mitchell said.
“Even when you take into account that these kids are victimized in so many different ways, this type of experience with a weapon is still related to their mental health,” she said.
Researchers say there is extensive literature indicating that when children and adults are faced with a threat to their lives, such as from exposure to a lethal weapon, the exposure can lead to traumatic stress symptoms.
“We have powerful systems in our brain and body” to manage threats and help us survive, but when we face a life threat, these systems can become “hyper-responsive,” said Glenn Saxe, director of the Child Study Center at the NYU Langone Medical Center.
“This phenomenon is the basis of traumatic stress reactions,” said Saxe, who is also chairman of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at Langone Medical Center. “Continuing anxiety/hypervigilance are ways of managing threat. Continuing anger/aggression are other ways of managing threat.”
Besides being more likely to suffer from trauma symptoms such as depression and anxiety, children who were exposed to violence involving a weapon were more likely to experience a range of other victimization in the past year, such as being neglected at home or sexually abused.
They were also more likely to be around peers who carried weapons or to carry weapons themselves. And young people exposed to gangs were found to be twice as likely to say they were a victim of violence that involved a weapon, the study said.
More awareness is needed about the extent and impact of children’s exposure to violence involving weapons, Mitchell said. More screening of children would also be beneficial, she said.
“We think that doctors and other health professionals are sometimes in a better place in some situations to identify and make recommendations for families, so we kind of endorse programs that make gun safety recommendations part of a general well visit for pediatric visits.”
Intervention can both reduce the likelihood of a child’s re-exposure to the violence and trauma and help prevent the symptoms from becoming chronic, Saxe said.
While it may be easy to say that children should stay away from environments where they may be more at risk for exposure to weapon violence, such as communities where gangs are present, that isn’t always possible for many families, said Mitchell.
“So one of the takeaways is really highlighting the importance of a public health approach to this problem and (to) start to look for some community and more policy-level (actions),” she said.
“I don’t think it’s a one-stop solution.”
How concerned are you that one in four children in the U.S. is exposed to violence involving weapons? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.