Local study examines impact of neighborhood shootings on kids' mental health

Experts found that kids who live in areas where shootings happen are 134% more likely to visit the ER for a mental health issue.
PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As a recreation center leader in West Philadelphia, Quan King knows the toll that gun violence takes on kids in the neighborhood.

"That's the trauma that a lot of our youth are dealing with right now. They're trying to figure out how to cope and best move forward," said King, who has experienced that trauma alongside the children who come to Christy Recreation Center. "We lost four kids this summer (to gun violence)."

King said he tries to make the rec center a safe haven.

That safe haven is something that kids need right now, not just for their physical safety but for their mental health, according to researchers who just concluded a study on the impact of gun violence on the mental health of children.

Researchers with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia looked at records of pediatric emergency room visits at CHOP and cross-referenced them with the Philadelphia Police Department's repository of shootings. The emergency room visits involved children ages 1 and a half to 11 and a half. Researchers specifically examined the data to study the mental health-related emergency room visits of children who lived in close proximity. That proximity was defined as within four to five blocks of a shooting.

SEE ALSO: Building It Better Together | Combating Gun Violence in Philadelphia

The researchers found that children who live close to areas where shootings happened are 134% more likely to go to the ER for a mental health issue.

"In the two weeks after a shooting, kids who lived two to three blocks of a shooting had 1.8, almost 1.9, times the odds of coming in to the ER," said Dr. Aditi Vasan is a pediatrician at CHOP and is was lead writer of the study.

The study looked 2,629 shootings and the 43,143 pediatric ER visits that happened within two months of a shooting. The study also looked at emergency room visits that happened before shootings, to bring the total number of pediatric ER visits studied to 54,341.

"Symptoms of mental health distress in children appear within days of being exposed to a single shooting. What's more, in Philadelphia and other cities across the United States, gun violence disproportionately affects Black children and families, adding to existing health disparities," said Senior Author Dr. Eugenia South, who is an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine and Faculty Director of the Penn Urban Health Lab.

Researchers recommend a range of solutions including partnerships with community organizations, safe storage of firearms, funding for mental health services and support for violence prevention programs. Researchers also recommend proactively reaching out to children who live in areas where shootings have happened.

SEE ALSO: Gun violence in Philadelphia increasingly targets Black women, data shows

Vasan makes it a point to note that children do not have to know the victim of a shooting to be impacted by the violence.

"Even at one month or two months out, they were significantly more likely to come into the ER for mental health," said Vasan.

King said he reaches out to kids who come to the rec center, especially after the neighborhood has experienced the trauma of violence.

"The thing that I like the do, is I like to listen," he said. "(I) check in with them like, 'How are you doing? What's going on?'" he said.

The research suggests that gestures like that could be what makes the difference for children struggling with mental health in the aftermath of the violence that Philadelphia has been experiencing.

"It's beyond unfortunate, it's unacceptable" said King. "(Kids) are being denied a proper childhood of just being able to learn and grow."
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