Maya Rossin-Slater, a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, recently published her findings in the National Bureau of Economic Research which said the average rate of antidepressant use among youths under age 20 rose by 21 percent in the local communities affected by fatal school shootings.
Researchers at Stanford and Chicago’s Northwestern University say the rate increase, which is based on comparisons two years before the incident and two years after, persisted even in the third year out, and noted that with at least 245 primary and secondary schools in the US experiencing shootings, tens of thousands of surviving students are left with poor mental health.
“The main takeaway from this analysis is that there’s a large, persistent and also localized effect of fatal school shootings,” Rossin-Slater said, adding that the effects were concentrated within five miles of a school that experienced a shooting. “What that tells us is that these increases are likely appearing for children that are directly exposed to these shootings because they’re a student at the same school or district.”
Researchers examined 44 shootings at schools in 10 states across the country from January 2008 to April 2013 and used a database of thousands of prescriptions filled at US retail pharmacies, complete with addresses of the medical providers who prescribed each drug.
Of the 44 school shootings, 15 involved at least one death.
“You might have thought that due to media coverage and general awareness that we would expect a ripple out effect,” Rossin-Slater said. ‘We didn’t find evidence of that, and we didn’t see any effects on non-fatal school shootings.”
What Rossin-Slater found is that severity matters: fatal school shootings, she said, are much more traumatic than non-fatal ones, and are more likely to lead to antidepressant descriptions among those affected.
She also said that though the number of people who are killed in school shootings is lower based on population alone than the number of people killed by general gun violence in any given year, many more students are indirectly exposed and affected.
“What we thought was that school shootings might be uniquely traumatic,” Rossin-Slater said. “These are violent incidents that occur in places that we think are designed to keep children safe. Moreover, the number of people who potentially are exposed is much larger in school settings than in violent crime on the street corner.”
A report by the Washington Post published this year found that school shootings across the country since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 have exposed over 240,000 students to gun violence and trauma. As school shootings become more frequent, a common narrative among people is that society has become desensitized to them, a notion that Rossin-Slater disputes.
“What we found is that there are these large lasting mental health impacts on youth who are exposed to fatal school shootings,” she said. “We thought school shootings might have an impact, but didn’t know how large it would be. When we think about designing policies to prevent these shootings, we need to incorporate these mental health impacts into those calculations.”