Gun violence has become an epidemic in the United States. In 2020, there were more than 45,000 gunshot deaths. This number has steadily increased over the past decade. These tragic events have a lasting impact on the lives of those who are victims. Many people who have lost their loved ones to gun violence suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and grief.
Many are still unsure how to heal the psychological consequences of gun violence because of a lack of empirical research. In partnership with advocacy groups for gun violence survivors, scientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine hope to change this.
A study was published in the journal Mindfulness. It showed that victims of gun violence were enrolled in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), program. The program was delivered by Mindful Way, a provider of mindfulness-based seminars, workshops and workshops. Researchers evaluated them for psychological markers of well being. Participants showed significant reductions in trauma symptoms and marked improvements in their life satisfaction after completing the mindfulness program.
Twenty-four people were included in the study, including many who were parents of victims of mass shootings such as Sandy Hook, Aurora, Parkland, Columbine and Sandy Hook.
Fadel Zeidan PhD, senior study author, said that losing a loved one due to a gun is one of most devastating traumas in human history. He was also an associate professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. It is a sudden, violent and senseless ablation of life. It can cause a unique trauma and sense guilt when you don’t have the time to be there for your loved one at their final resting place, or to grieve and honor the process of death.
Many survivors feel helpless, have lost trust in others, and lose meaning in their lives and the world. Many survivors experience difficulties in their relationships and careers due to the lack of effective treatment strategies.
Participants showed high levels of depression, trauma, sleep difficulty, and grief at the beginning of the study. Validated psychometric surveys measured these symptoms. The participants then completed an MBSR class consisting of eight 2.5-hour classes per week and a one-day-long silent meditation retreat. Participants were taught to be present, to practice breathing exercises, to regulate emotions, and to have compassion for others.
Zeidan stated, “Losing a loved one to a gun is one of the most catastrophic traumas in the human condition. It is a sudden, senseless and violent ablation of life. When you don’t have time to be with your loved one on their deathbed, to mourn and honor the death process naturally, it can produce a unique trauma and sense of guilt that is quite difficult to overcome.”
Our data shows that survivors learned to accept their feelings and thoughts without judgement or fear. This allows them to feel their grief and still be present in the moment.
Participants in the MBSR program reported a 37 percent decrease in trauma, 52 percent less post-traumatic stress and depression after completing the program. The individuals reported a 26 percent decrease in sleep difficulties and an increase of 16 percent in their overall satisfaction with life. Although the most dramatic improvements were seen in the first four weeks, the effects remained largely unchanged after the eight-week mindfulness training course.
Zeidan said, “Mindfulness training is like exercise for your mind: The more you practice, the stronger you get. Over time, this state of meditation starts to become a personal trait or a temperament you can access more easily.”
This trait is called “dispositional mindfulness” by researchers, and it can be measured using standardized tests. Zeidan’s research team discovered that participants who had higher dispositional mindfulness scores experienced greater psychological improvements. This supports the hypothesis that mindfulness is the reason for their relief.
The team is currently working to expand the pilot study. Future studies will focus on which mindfulness training methods are most effective for this group. They may also use brain imaging or other tools to examine how mindfulness affects participants’ physiology.
Zeidan plans to also directly compare mindfulness-based therapy’s effectiveness with other options such as trauma-informed psychological therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is often designed to change an attitude, while mindfulness is focused more on accepting an attitude.
He said that mindfulness can also be self-facilitated so users can practice it without the need for a mental health professional. This will allow for more access to treatment, particularly in communities that are disproportionally affected by gun violence.
We often think that healing may feel like forgetting but survivors don’t want to forget. They don’t want their mourning to stop. Mindfulness appears to be a good way for them to accept their grief and feel it in a more healthy and peaceful manner.