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Dealing with the trauma of gun violence: 'It's always in our heads because it's always happening'

Posted at 7:04 PM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-13 19:08:54-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Gun violence isn't just leaving physical wounds. They also cut into the mind, heart, and soul according to mental health experts.

"It's sad, and the city is hurting. What do we do? How do we overcome this?"

Those questions keep Shanda Gaston up at night as she wrestles with the deep emotional toll of gun violence in her community.

"It's always in our heads because it's always happening," Gaston said.

She explained that all-consuming feeling of sadness motivates her to speak out against a recent uptick in shootings across Central Virginia. But she's not just speaking -- she's doing.

"When it comes to kids and you're harming kids, or kids need help or whatever the situation may be and I can help, I'm all for it," Gaston said. "Because if I don't step up, who will?"

Gaston frequently organizes events to bring people together with one common mission: ending violence. For example, she was behind a car rally in April following a string of eight shootings in Richmond. She also helped plan a recent vigil honoring a 16-year-old girl shot and killed in Henrico.

But all those efforts come with a price to her mental health.

"I might have to take a step back, and I might need to go cry for 30 or 40 minutes just to get it back together," she said.

Social worker and therapist, Charlie Pleasant, said people in communities where gun violence is consistent are at higher risk of experiencing traumatic stress.

"You will see a lot of dissociation that's happening, you will see people that actually begin to shut down, you will see the helplessness and hopelessness that comes up, the ongoing chronic major depression," Pleasant explained.

The impacts go beyond shooting victims and their families. Pleasant calls it a ripple effect that stretches across businesses, community organizations, and even medical systems.

"What we rarely talk about, even though the research is there, is just the trauma's impact on structural systems in our society," she said.

The stress is heightened for those without a stable support system or housing security.

Thankfully, she said there are helpful ways to cope:

-Talk with friends and loved ones about your feelings

-Exercise and try to stay active

-Advocate for the changes you want to see

"Community organizations can really help you feel empowered in the situation that can leave you feeling very disempowered," Pleasant said.

And that's what fuels Gaston's determination to make a difference.

"You don't know when it's going to be your last day," Gaston said. "Love on each other, promote peace, unity within the community."

If you or a loved one are hurting because of gun violence, help is available. Pleasant suggested getting involved with these organizations:
The Virginia Victims Assistance Network

Rise For Youth

The Virginia Anti-Violence Project