Gun violence survivors talk about mental health implications as experts weigh public health solutions | Health

For the first time in nearly four years, Ada Washington visited the basketball courts where her son Juquel Young was shot.

“My whole life is different,” Washington said.

Since Young’s death on July 15, 2018, Washington has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic depression, anxiety disorder and high blood pressure.

It is a cycle of trauma-related mental disorders that millions of gun violence survivors in the US, including their families and friends, develop after these devastating events.

Sadly, this cycle of grief and trauma is resonating with thousands of South Carolinians as more than 1,100 people in the state died from firearms-related injuries in 2020.

And as experts in the Lowcountry and the US discuss the multifaceted approach to treating gun violence as a public health problem, survivors like Washington say more needs to be done to treat mental health problems arising after shootings.

“The people who are often forgotten are the survivors,” Washington said. “But what happens when the judge hits the gavel? What happens to the family afterwards?’

Everytown for Gun Safety is one of the largest gun violence prevention organizations in the US

The nonprofit defines a gun violence survivor as anyone who has witnessed gun violence, received threats with or been injured by a gun, or injured or killed someone they know or care for with a gun.

In its latest report, the organization found that nine out of 10 gun violence survivors said they had experienced trauma, but less than half said they had access to mental health services.

And a recent study published by the American College of Physicians found that relatives of survivors had a 12 percent increase in psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, anxiety and depression.

‘I don’t say the D-word’

Washington’s first glances were cautious and hesitant, as if she could still see the body of her 17-year-old son lying on the stiff blue concrete of the basketball courts of the Ashley Oaks apartment complex.

“He went to heaven here,” Washington said, wiping the tears from her eyes.

Washington said she and Young were not living in the complex at the time of the shooting. He was there visiting a friend of his grandmother who lived there.

“He loved the kids he grew up with,” Washington said.

Washington said Young was very smart, which made his honors classes at West Ashley High School seem easy while he also played football.

Violence with weapons

Ada Washington and her son Juquel (right) and Juwon (left) pose for a photo in 2015. Provided

“It was his dream to graduate with his class,” Washington said.

Young was shot at the scene by a 15-year-old after a verbal altercation. It’s not clear what the spat was about, but Charleston county officials said at the time “it wasn’t worth dying for.”

His killer was also killed on the spot by another teenager, aged 17, who was arrested on charges of murder and possession of a gun during a violent crime just days after the shooting.

The incident took place weeks before Young was due to start his senior year of high school.

Now, nearly four years later, Washington said there are still things she just can’t do, like saying the words dead or dead. Instead, she will say “he is asleep” or is in heaven.

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Washington was also diagnosed with a long-term grief disorder, which is characterized by persistent longing for the deceased, intense emotional pain and numbness, and difficulty accepting death after a period of more than six months.

According to the American Psychiatry Association, the condition is most common in people who have lost a child or romantic partner and is more likely to occur after a sudden or violent death.

“I didn’t touch anything in his room,” Washington said. “Everything is how he left it.”

‘Keep busy’

Washington is certainly not alone in her trauma, as thousands of black families across the state have to deal with the effects of gun violence.

However, volunteering for Moms Demand Action, a nationwide grassroots organization fighting for common sense gun laws and safety, “puts her in a peaceful place.”

Washington serves as a co-group leader for the organization’s Charleston chapter, coordinating events for local gun violence survivors to access mental health care and other resources.

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Year after year, studies show that young black men are disproportionately affected by gun violence.

In fact, more than 50 percent of all black teens who died between the ages of 15 and 19 in 2020 were killed by gun violence. And black men, ages 15 to 34, were more than 20 times more likely to die from gun murder than their white counterparts.

State Representative Jermaine Johnson has also felt the brunt of gun violence firsthand. Johnson lost his older brother, Andre, to gun violence at a young age. He was 5 years old and the events leading up to his brother’s death remain one of his very first memories.

“The very first memory of my entire life is that (Andre) ran away and knew that when he ran away, he was killed,” Johnson said.

Johnson said his brother ran away from his home in Pomona, California, to his family in Minnesota after getting into an argument with his father.

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Six months later, Andre was shot in the back in Minnesota by one of his closest friends. He was 17 years old.

The incident happened nearly 30 years ago, but for Johnson, the pain, anger and confusion surrounding his brother’s death have never gone away.

“I’m always concerned about my children being in the world, the people they interact with,” Johnson said. “This was someone he considered his best friend. It definitely shaped me and how I raise my kids.”

Jermaine Johnson (copy)

Jermaine Johnson, a Hopkins Statehouse representative, advocates for gun violence reform after his older brother was shot and killed at age 17.

Johnson, D-Hopkins, has long been a supporter of gun reform. In 2021, he called on lawmakers to allocate funding to evidence-based community intervention programs. He has also introduced a number of bills to state lawmakers calling on the state to allocate federal funds to organizations that combat gun violence.

Johnson also ran a non-profit organization, New Economic Beginnings Foundation, before being elected to South Carolina. The organization worked with violent offenders and helped them develop life and professional skills to reduce recidivism rates.

“I’ll just keep working and making sure people don’t have to do the same things I do,” Johnson said.

There is no one solution

With mass shootings and homicides rising 14 percent in the U.S. in 2020 alone, more researchers, public health experts and lawmakers are discussing how to treat gun violence as a public health problem.

And like diabetes, HIV and global pandemics, there is no single solution to addressing these issues.

Ashley Hink is an attending physician at the Medical University of South Carolina and has been researching gun violence for several years.

In her latest study, she found that guns killed more children than car accidents by 2020 and are now the leading cause of death among children.

“Just like we do for other public health problems, we can’t get around it,” Hink said.

Hink said treating gun violence as a public health problem means identifying certain social, environmental and economic factors that could put a person at higher risk.

“We know that gun violence can harm individuals, families and communities,” Hink said. “We need to have a public health strategy to help change the story for our patients.”

Hink said part of the way MUSC is tackling this is with their hospital violence intervention program, Turning the Tide. The program is the first of its kind in South Carolina and provides bereaved with resources to receive trauma-informed care and long-term services.

And in light of recent high-profile shootings in Buffalo, NY, and Uvalde, Texas, the Senate is poised to pass a gun violence bill before the end of the month.

It’s been nearly 30 years since Congress last passed major firearms reform.

The legislation would tighten background checks for the youngest firearms buyers, ask more salespeople to conduct background checks, and provide money to the state and communities to improve school safety and mental health initiatives.

Although Young never graduated from West Ashley High School, his dream lives on. In his memory, Washington established the Juquel K. Young Memorial Scholarship for high school students who also survived gun violence.

“It can be hard to get focused again,” Washington said, recalling her efforts to get her bachelor’s degree after her son graduated.

Just a few feet away from where Young took his last breath, Washington remembered how Young would cheer her on when the going got tough.

“I know (Juquel) is there now and saying ‘you got it, mommy, you got it,'” Washington said. “He’s proud of me.”

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