Skip to main content

Social Work and Mental Health: Addressing Gun Violence Trauma

December 26, 2023

Gun violence remains a critical issue in the United States, substantially impacting public health and safety across the country. As of early December, the Gun Violence Archive reported there had been close to 40,000 deaths due to guns in 2023, including both homicides and suicides, with 272 of these fatalities involving children under the age of 12​. According to Pew Research Center, there has been a 50 percent increase in gun deaths among children and teens between 2019 and 2021.

Social workers play a crucial role in addressing the mental health needs of those affected by gun violence. Their training equips them to provide services at the intersection of social work and mental health, such as immediate crisis intervention, long-term counseling and support for individuals and communities. They use various therapeutic approaches, including Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and other evidence-based therapies including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), to help clients process their trauma and develop coping strategies. 

Social workers also advocate for policies that address the root causes of gun violence, such as poverty, inequality and the lack of access to mental health services. They also work for policy reform and legislative changes that can reduce gun violence and deaths. For example, under red flag laws, social workers can request the temporary confiscation of firearms by the state court from people who may pose a threat of violence. Read on for more information on how professional social workers address gun violence and mental health. 

Gun Violence Statistics

Estimating the exact number of Americans affected by gun violence is challenging due to the complex and far-reaching impacts of such incidents. Those affected include not only the direct victims of gun violence (those injured or killed) but also their families, their friends, witnesses and members of the community where the violence occurred.

Statistics on gun violence in relation to children, teens and communities in the United States as of 2023 include the following:

  • Direct victims. According to the Gun Violence Archive, thousands of people in the United States are killed or injured by guns each year. This includes not only homicides but also suicides and accidental shootings. Guns are now the leading cause of death for American children, killing more each year than car accidents, according to the advocacy organization Giffords. Firearm homicide rates are highest among teens and young adults ages 15 to 34​​, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Survivors. Nearly all gun violence survivors experienced trauma as a result. In a 2022 Everytown for Gun Safety survey of survivors, 90 percent reported that they experienced trauma from the gun violence incident.
  • Families and friends. For every person killed or injured by gun violence, there are numerous family members and friends of the person who are also affected. This includes those who are caring for someone injured in a shooting. In 2023, health policy research and polling firm KFF estimated that 1 in 5 American adults had a family member who had been killed by a gun, and about 1 in 6 adults had witnessed an injury from a shooting. 
  • First responders, front line staff and direct care professionals. Professionals who are repeatedly and directly exposed to gun violence through providing medical, behavioral health and other support services to gun violence victims and survivors may experience Vicarious or Secondary Trauma, which the American Counseling Association defines as “the emotional residue of exposure to traumatic stories and experiences of others through work; witnessing fear, pain, and terror that others have experienced; [and] a preoccupation with horrific stories told to the professional.” 
  • Mass shootings. On October 26, 2023, ABC News reported there had been at least 565 mass shootings in the previous ten months. The Gun Violence Archive tracked 690 mass shootings in 2021 and 645 mass shootings in 2022. 

These statistics underscore the widespread and varied impacts of gun violence on people and communities across the United States. They highlight the critical need for interventions and support services, particularly for vulnerable populations such as children and teens, and the importance of community-level responses to this public health crisis.

Gun Violence Trauma

The mental health consequences of gun violence are profound and diverse. Exposure to gun violence can lead to long-term mental health issues, leaving individuals feeling shocked, fearful and unsafe.

Gun violence trauma refers to the psychological and emotional issues experienced by individuals and communities exposed to gun violence. This type of trauma can result from direct exposure to a violent event, such as being a victim of or a witness to a shooting, or indirect exposure, such as learning that a loved one has been shot or living in a community where gun violence is prevalent. 

The trauma may manifest in any of various ways, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, sleep problems, physical illness, increased substance use or complex grief. It can lead to a state of constant fear, hypervigilance and distrust in the safety of one’s environment. Additionally, survivors might experience guilt, shame, anger or a sense of helplessness and negative alterations in the way they view and experience the world.

Trauma social workers understand that the impact of gun violence is not limited to physical injuries; it also encompasses the emotional and psychological wounds that may not be immediately visible. They are cognizant of how trauma can manifest differently in different individuals, influenced by factors such as a person’s age, background and previous exposure to trauma.

Social Effects of Gun Violence

Gun violence has pervasive social consequences that ripple through communities and societies, often with devastating effects. It inflicts collective trauma on neighborhoods, fostering an environment rife with stress and anxiety that takes a toll on the mental health of residents. This violence undermines the very fabric of community life, eroding trust and social cohesion, which can lead to increased isolation and fear among community members. As Everytown for Gun Safety explains: “When safe spaces no longer feel safe, entire communities suffer.”

Economically, neighborhoods plagued by gun violence often face devalued property, higher insurance costs and a dwindling presence of businesses, which in turn exacerbates job scarcity and stunts economic growth.

The repercussions of gun violence on education are also troubling. Schools within affected areas confront a climate of fear that can interrupt students’ learning and lead to frequent, disruptive lockdowns. Additionally, the stress and trauma associated with such violence often contribute to broader health disparities, particularly within marginalized communities where the incidence of gun violence is disproportionately higher than in other communities. 

These disparities can lead to various health issues, including mental health disorders and a range of chronic diseases. Families grappling with the aftermath of gun violence endure complex grief and trauma, which can significantly disrupt the family dynamics and the emotional stability of each family member, and lead to intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma is defined as the transmission of trauma through generations. People affected by intergenerational trauma may experience symptoms, reactions, patterns and emotional and psychological effects from trauma experienced by previous generations. They may also experience stress-related medical conditions and autoimmune disorders.

The consequences of gun violence extend to the strain it places on public resources, including health care, emergency services and law enforcement resources. These incidents necessitate a significant allocation of resources for both immediate and long-term responses, ranging from medical treatment to mental health support.

Social Workers’ Professional Responsibilities

Social work as a field recognizes its obligation to address the epidemic of gun violence, which has profound implications for individuals’ mental health and a community’s well-being. Social workers’ response to gun violence involves several actions:

  • Crisis intervention and counseling. Social workers provide immediate support to individuals and families affected by gun violence, helping them navigate the complex emotions and trauma that follow such incidents. 
  • Community engagement and support. Social workers engage with communities to foster resilience and support networks that can mitigate the effects of violence and trauma.
  • Advocacy and policy influence. By advocating for policy changes, social workers contribute to the development of safer communities through measures like stricter gun control laws and improved mental health services.
  • Research and education. Social workers participate in research to better understand the factors that contribute to gun violence and to educate the public and policymakers about effective prevention strategies.
  • Preventive services. Social workers work with at-risk individuals and communities to prevent gun violence, including working with youth and addressing issues such as poverty and social inequality that are often underlying factors in violence.

Social workers’ actions entail both providing immediate support and counseling to those who need it and addressing the root causes of gun violence through research, advocacy and community work. It is a multifaceted approach that requires a concerted effort from social workers, policymakers and community members to create lasting change and ensure the safety and well-being of all.

Trauma Social Work

Trauma social work in the context of gun violence involves specialized interventions and support for individuals and communities that have been impacted by gun-related incidents. Social workers recognize that exposure to gun violence, whether through direct experience or as a communitywide issue, can lead to complex and long-lasting traumatic effects. Trauma social workers are trained to understand, assess and treat the psychological and emotional aftermath that follows such violent events.

Trauma social workers are skilled in assessing the specific needs of those affected by gun violence. This involves not just identifying the symptoms of trauma that an individual is experiencing but also understanding the broader context of the individual’s life, including their family dynamics, community environment and access to resources. Based on this comprehensive assessment, social workers develop tailored interventions that address both the immediate and long-term effects of trauma.

Social work and mental health experts agree that trauma-informed social work is crucial during a crisis.  For example, in the aftermath of a school shooting, social workers work closely with the school’s administration to communicate important information to students, families and the wider community. The community turns to social workers to answer their questions. Sharing information tactfully and in a trauma-informed manner is critical, especially when communicating information about injuries, deaths and ongoing security threats. 

The United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) outlines the principles and operational goals of trauma-informed care. According to SAMHSA, “A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.”

SAMHSA’s six principles to guiding a trauma-informed approach are as follows:

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness and transparency
  • Peer support
  • Collaboration and mutuality 
  • Empowerment voice and choice
  • Cultural, historic and gender issues

To be able to reduce the potential for trauma or re-traumatization, social workers need to receive specialized trauma-responsive training in how to support individuals, families and communities. 

5 Clinical Social Work Methods for Addressing Gun Violence

Clinical social workers use a range of methods to address the complex issue of gun violence. These interventions not only support individuals in their healing journey but also contribute to the larger goal of preventing violence and fostering healthy, resilient communities.

Here are five methods that clinical social workers employ to address gun violence, rooted in research and evidence-based practices and guided by reputable sources such as the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based practice that is commonly used in trauma-focused interventions. CBT helps individuals affected by gun violence understand the connections between their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By identifying and challenging their distorted thought patterns and beliefs, clients can develop healthier ways of coping with their trauma.

Clinical social workers use CBT to help clients process their trauma by breaking down their overwhelming emotions into manageable parts. This method involves educating clients on the physiological and psychological effects of trauma and guiding them to reframe their experiences positively. It has been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD, a common consequence of gun violence.

2. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is another evidence-based method endorsed by NASW for the treatment of trauma. EMDR involves the client calling up upsetting memories while undergoing a form of bilateral sensory stimulation, like eye movements.

EMDR is grounded in the understanding that the mind can heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma. When a traumatic event causes interruption in this natural healing process, the use of EMDR therapy helps the brain process the traumatic memories, and healing can resume. Social workers trained in EMDR have found it particularly effective for clients with trauma from gun violence, helping them to reduce vivid, unwanted, repeated recollections of traumatic events and other distressing symptoms of PTSD.

3. Narrative Exposure Therapy

Narrative exposure therapy (NET) teaches individuals how to process complex trauma by storytelling. It involves supporting clients as they retell the story of their own life events, placing the traumatic experiences within the context of their larger life story.

Clinical social workers using NET guide clients through recounting their life stories, allowing them to process and contextualize traumatic incidents, including experiences of gun violence. This approach has been supported by research that indicates its efficacy in reducing symptoms of PTSD, and it is especially valued for its culturally sensitive application in diverse populations.

4. Group Therapy

Group therapy provides a supportive environment where individuals can share their experiences and coping strategies. In the context of gun violence, social workers facilitate group sessions where survivors can come together to express their feelings, share their stories and offer each other mutual support.

The efficacy of group therapy is supported by evidence that suggests social support is crucial in the recovery from trauma. It can help reduce feelings of isolation, provide a sense of community and foster the development of coping skills. NASW supports group therapy as a space for empowerment and collective healing following traumatic events such as gun violence.

5. Play Therapy or Art Therapy

Play therapy and art therapy provide age-appropriate ways to express and process traumatic experiences. These therapies provide alternative means of expression and processing for individuals who may find it difficult to articulate their experiences and emotions through traditional verbal communication.

Both play therapy and art therapy rely on the social worker to create a safe and welcoming space where the client can explore various toys and play materials. This space becomes a place where the client can express their inner world, make sense of their experiences, develop healthy coping mechanisms and build resilience.

These therapies offer clients creative and nonthreatening ways to explore and heal from their experiences, complementing other therapeutic approaches in the journey toward recovery.

Community-Level Responses to Gun Violence

In addition to providing therapy to individuals, trauma social workers engage in community-level responses. Clinical social workers offer community engagement, education and advocacy to address the broader social determinants of gun violence. They work with community leaders, policymakers and other stakeholders to advocate for violence prevention and mental health resources.

These methods are rooted in the social work principle of social justice. Advocacy efforts focus on creating systemic changes to reduce gun violence and improve community resilience. By advocating for policy changes, increased access to mental health services and community-based interventions, social workers aim to address the root causes of violence and promote sustainable community health.

Community Engagement

Community engagement involves working with schools, community organizations and health care providers to develop broad support networks and resilience-building initiatives. Social workers may facilitate community meetings or support groups, provide psychoeducational resources on trauma and its effects, and work on violence-prevention programs.

Training and Education

Education and continuous training are critical in trauma social work, especially in the context of gun violence. Social workers in this field stay informed about the latest research and best practices for treating trauma. They also educate others, including health care professionals, law enforcement officials and the general public, about the effects of gun violence and the importance of trauma-informed care.

For example, given the increasing incidence of gun violence in homes, schools and churches, many school social workers promote education on responsible firearm use and storage. They also provide resources for children and youth about how to seek help if they encounter someone misusing a firearm.

Advocacy and Policy

Legislation and policy play an important role in this issue, as the laws that regulate gun ownership and usage are key levers for reducing violence. Social work interventions in this realm are grounded in research that informs evidence-based policies and practices. Social workers advocate for more data collection, identifying risk and protective factors and evaluating preventive strategies to mitigate the impact of gun violence and ensure the safety and well-being of all community members.

Often, this involves lobbying for better funding for mental health social workers and services and evidence-based community-level interventions to address the root causes of violence, such as poverty, social inequality and access to firearms. For example, NASW is a campaign partner for Brady, a gun violence prevention organization. NASW encourages social workers to advocate for expanding universal background checks among other legislative and cultural initiatives to reduce gun violence.

Pursue a Career in Social Work

Social work and mental health are deeply intertwined. We know that communities with greater access to mental health support, such as the resources and guidance provided by social workers, are more likely to thrive. 

Are you interested in starting or advancing your career in social work? Consider pursuing a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) from Virginia Commonwealth University. The online program format is crafted to equip participants with a comprehensive skill set that is applicable within local communities or educational systems. Discover the benefits of advanced social work training now.

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Korndoerfer, M.A., LPC

*Kathleen Korndoerfer, M.A., is a licensed professional counselor with over ten years experience in the fields of mental health and social work. Kathleen currently practices in Colorado and specializes in the treatment of PTSD and trauma-related disorders, and in child and adolescent counseling.

Kathleen Korndoerfer, Licensed Professional Counselor, Montrose, CO, 81401 

American Counseling Association, Vicarious Trauma

American Psychological Association, Intergenerational Trauma

Amnesty International, Gun Violence

Brady, Urge Congress to Take Up Major Gun Violence Prevention Legislation!

CBS, “What Are Red Flag Laws – And Do They Work in Preventing Gun Violence?”

CDC, Fast Facts: Firearm Violence and Injury Prevention

Everytown for Gun Safety, “A More Complete Picture: The Contours of Gun Injury in the United States”

Everytown for Gun Safety, “When the Shooting Stops: The Impact of Gun Violence on Survivors in America”

Giffords, “Guns Are Now the Leading Cause of Death for American Kids”

Gun Violence Archive

KFF, “Americans’ Experiences With Gun-Related Violence, Injuries, and Deaths”

NASW, Gun Violence

NASW Social Work Blog, “American Epidemic: From First Response to Research, Social Workers Tackle Gun Violence”

The New England Journal of Medicine, “The War-Zone Mentality: Mental Health Effects of Gun Violence in U.S. Children and Adolescents” 

The New Social Worker, “Dialogues on Gun Violence: The Role of Social Work Values and Principles”

TraumaInformed, Trauma-Informed Care

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Trauma-Informed Approaches: Connecting Research, Policy, and Practice to Build Resilience in Children and Families”

Penn Today, “Managing Mental Health Amid Gun Violence” 

Pew Research Center, “Gun Deaths Among U.S. Children and Teens Rose 50% in Two Years”

Pew Research Center, “What the Data Says About Gun Deaths in the U.S.”

Reuters, “Major Incidents of Gun Violence in the US in 2023”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “SAMHSA’s  Concept of Trauma  and Guidance for a  Trauma-Informed Approach”

Social Work Today, “Gun Violence Trauma: Beyond the Numbers”