Mindfulness May Improve Gun Violence Survivors’ Mental Health and Well-Being

New research indicates that a mindfulness-based intervention may offer mental and emotional support to survivors of gun violence.

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If you live in America, you almost certainly know or are a victim of gun violence. According to one estimate, gun violence is so common that any given American has a 99.9% chance of knowing a victim. It is an epidemic that plagues the United States, with devastating and long-lasting effects on individuals and communities. Black communities are disproportionately harmed, with gun violence being the number one cause of death for Black youth. And in 2020, gun violence was the leading cause of death for all young people under age 25.

Given the trauma inflicted by mass shootings, it’s not surprising that gun violence is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide. But the burden of gun violence goes beyond the victim—family, friends, and those within the community may develop vicarious trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Despite the ubiquity and impact of gun violence, few studies to date have researched trauma interventions for gun violence victims. 

Recently, a pilot study at the University of California San Diego examined Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as a method for alleviating the trauma and suffering that gun violence survivors experience.

Recently, a pilot study at the University of California San Diego examined Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as a method for alleviating the trauma and suffering that gun violence survivors experience. MBSR is an eight-week program pioneered by professor of medicine emeritus Jon Kabat-Zinn. The program teaches mindfulness practices, like paying close attention to the body and the breath, and emotion regulation. Previous research shows MBSR can be effective in helping people experiencing stress or trauma, including veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, healthcare professionals who have witnessed traumatic events, primary school teachers, and people who have recently received a cancer diagnosis

Strategies for Navigating Trauma and Grief

Lora Khatib and researchers at the University of California San Diego wanted to study MBSR and its effects on individuals who were affected by gun violence. Her team recruited twenty-four participants from a nonprofit organization that provides support and referrals for survivors of gun violence. These participants underwent the eight-week program, learning formal strategies to improve the daily effects of their trauma and grief. These strategies included breathing exercises, focused attention on different parts of the body, and guided meditation. They combined this with daily emotional regulation and mindfulness activities in the form of a workbook.

To assess the effectiveness of MBSR, participants were asked to complete questionnaires to rate their depressive symptoms, sleep quality, life satisfaction, and any changes in their mindfulness. Participants completed identical questionnaires at three points in time—before they began MBSR training and at five and eight weeks after the training period—with the goal of tracking any improvement in their depressive and post-traumatic stress symptoms. 

Prior to beginning mindfulness training, well over one third of participants had symptoms of PTSD and met the clinical criteria for depression. Many individuals experienced the same frequency and severity of traumatic symptoms as people who have suffered severe abuse. About eight in 10 were suffering from grief severe enough to require clinical care, and eight in 10 were also struggling with sleep. 

How Mindfulness Supports Survivors of Gun Violence

After completing the eight-week MBSR course, participants reported a 50% improvement in their post-traumatic stress and depressive symptoms, a 23% improvement in their feelings of grief, and the group’s overall sleep improved by 26%. The greatest improvements in post-traumatic stress and depressive symptoms occurred during the first four weeks of MBSR and were sustained throughout the course, which highlights the importance of early intervention for gun violence victims. In addition, participants reported an increase in overall life satisfaction, saying that their daily mindfulness had increased since the beginning of the course and was helpful in reducing symptoms. 

These findings are promising for helping victims of gun violence and trauma-affected victims alike. The results echo previous research that has also shown improvements in mental well-being after only brief training using similar mindfulness-based interventions. For victims of gun violence, this research suggests that MBSR may provide significant support in helping them to navigate trauma and reclaim their well-being. 

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