Psychological impact of gun violence causes public health crisis

By Ilana Marcus
Medill Reports

The long-lasting psychological impact and mental disorders stemming from exposure to gun violence have made Chicago’s shooting epidemic a public-health issue, a panel of experts said last week at an event hosted by Cook County.

That’s on top of the monetary costs to the health system associated with treating gunshot victims, said panelists.

The panel was the first event of a Cook County initiative to bring awareness to the intersection of gun violence and public health. The goal is to encourage lawmakers to create policy addressing these issues, said Alejandro Aixalá, executive director of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council.

“We do prevention and treatment, trying to reduce the likelihood of these things happening,” he said, discussing both preemptive and reactive efforts to minimize gun violence.

The medical procedures required to treat victims of gun violence are more sophisticated than they have been in the past, according to panelist Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County chief medical examiner.

Arunkumar said victims suffer multiple wounds per shooting today, and “Radically Invasive Projectile” ammunition, which splits into multiple fragments upon impact to cause maximal injury, is gaining prevalence.

Panelists talked about the multifaceted approach necessary for treating those touched by violence.

“We have to rethink our responsibilities as health-care providers,” said panelist Rev. Carol Reese, violence-prevention coordinator and chaplain with the Department of Trauma at Stroger Hospital. She said that restoring people after a violent injury goes beyond physical healing.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is common among youths exposed to gun violence, said Reese, adding that young people trapped in a cycle of violence may exhibit signs of “moral injury.” Moral injury, often associated with combat veterans, is the breakdown of an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to behave in a just or ethical manner, according to the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University.

Speakers emphasized a comprehensive approach to addressing the consequences of gun violence.

“We’re not addressing holistically the communities that are the most violent,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who moderated the panel. She added that unemployment and so-called food deserts are often impediments in neighborhoods which experience high rates of gun violence.

Panelist Dr. Faran Bokhari, chair of the Cook County trauma and burn unit, called the extent to which legislation is divorced from the frontlines of gun violence issues “tragic.”

“We’ve seen a lot of singular approaches, whether that be through legislation, whether that be through an increase in the police force,” said Aixalá. “There’s a broader perspective here, and that’s what we’re trying to get at.”