I always wake my daughter up in the morning by gently touching her shoulder and giving her a five-minute warning that I’ll be back and expect her to be up and about. One day last week, when I touched her on the shoulder, she bolted upright in bed and sleepily told me “Mom, they shot Santa!” She asked me if she could have a few minutes and fell back on the pillow saying she felt nervous; a word that I don’t think was even in my vocabulary when I was ten. A few extra minutes of sleep seemed to have worked magic for her; however, her dream made a deep and lasting impression on me. What have we, as a society done to our children?
The following day, the American Psychological Association released the 2018 Stress in America: Generation Z report. This report found that 75% of young people in Generation Z (ages 15-21) reported mass shootings as a major source of stress. While they also reported other stressors, such as reports of immigrant families being separated (57%) and widespread reports of sexual abuse (53%), it is gun violence that topped the list. This age was also the least likely to report that their mental health was either excellent or very good; it was also the group most likely to have sought mental health treatment or therapy.
Growing up, I can remember the stories that my mother used to tell me about her experience of going to school during the war. It was classroom protocol for children to learn to dive under their desk at the sound of an air raid siren on the off chance that a bomb would explode on or near the school. After awhile these practice drills became routine; the threat was real, but it was just a threat. For the most part, the war was something that happened in other countries far away from her daily reality.
Things are different now. Our children are growing up in a society where they are exposed to the reality of gun violence every day. It happens right here in this country, in their cities and neighborhoods. This generation has grown up with school shootings where children their age lose their life at the hands of an angry classmate. They have also been exposed to mass shootings in public places that they frequent such as the mall, movie theaters and concert venues. They have active shooter drills at school where they learn how to huddle with their friends and teachers behind a locked door hoping that they don’t become the next target. While certainly the personal safety of our children is paramount, we cannot afford to neglect their mental well-being. How can this not take a toll on their mental health, especially those in Generation Z who are looking to leave the safety and security of their parent’s home.
And yet when the topic of mental health is discussed with regards to these issues, it usually involves the mental health of the shooter. How could someone with mental illness get a weapon? I don’t discount that this is a critical part of the conversation that needs to be happening with regards to preventing these incidents; however, we cannot afford to overlook the real toll that these incidences have taken on our children. Children are losing their sense of security in places where they should be busy being kids rather than being vigilant about their personal safety. The mental health and well-being of the most vulnerable among us is at stake. Let’s make that part of the conversation as well.