To understand the real toll of gun violence, look to survivors and their families
When DeAndra Yates-Dycus got a phone call that her seventh grader was shot, she rushed to the hospital, frantic, hoping she wouldn’t be asked to identify a body.
The sheriff met Yates-Dycus and told her that 13-year-old Dre “did not do anything wrong. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
She recalls replying: “No, he was in the right place at the right time, because kids should be able to go to birthday parties.”
Dre was at a friend’s 13th birthday party at a home in what Yates described as a “nice neighborhood” on the Northwest side of Indianapolis. They’d just sung “Happy Birthday” when a stray bullet from outside the house shattered a window and pierced Dre’s skull.
Dre survived the shooting, but he’s paralyzed from the neck down.
This was February 2014. Gun violence has only grown as a public health concern since. While the rate of gun-related deaths, taking into account population growth, has not exceeded the historic highs set in the 1990s, the U.S. has seen more gun-related deaths in the past two years than any year on record.
Gun violence incidents, which include non-fatal shootings, have spiked as well. And the trail of damage these shootings leave extends well beyond those who were struck by bullets. Studies show that even when someone survives a shooting, they and their families continue to struggle with financial, physical and mental health issues.
We don’t know much about survivors, but that’s starting to change
For every person who dies from guns in the U.S., two to three people are injured, said criminologist Lauren Magee. But after shootings, the focus is usually on the number of deaths. Little is known about those who were shot and survived.
“Non-fatal shootings are the majority of gun violence that every city experiences,” said Magee, an assistant professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis where she studies the policy and public health impact of gun violence.
Locally and nationally, there are no comprehensive records of basic information about the number of survivors and their health outcomes, Magee said, which hampers our understanding of the true toll of gun violence.
But more research on gun violence through a public health lens is emerging.
A recent study looked at the economic and health toll of non-fatal shootings on survivors and their family members covered by Medicare and private health insurance. Survivors saw higher medical costs, and both survivors and their family members were more likely to develop psychiatric disorders in the year following a shooting incident compared to people who were not affected by gun violence.
Ruby Mendenhall, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has studied the impact of gun violence on Black women in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, a predominantly Black community.
“Most of [the women] had headaches, stomach aches, backaches, hair falling out,” Mendenhall said. “About 48 percent of the sample reported depressive symptoms and about 56 percent reported PTSD symptoms.”
One woman who lost her son to gun violence said she couldn’t taste food anymore.
“And she said that was something they used to do together – they would always cook and eat and that was their thing. And so after he passed, she just couldn't,” Mendenhall said. “And she said that she actually started going to expensive restaurants to try to get food because she had to eat.”
After her son was shot, Yates-Dycus began to have trouble sleeping. Her fight or flight reflexes kick in quickly, especially in large crowds or in places where she might feel confined.
"I've always had a little phobia of elevators, now it's to the 10th power,” she said. “I'm always looking – where's the way out? What if a stray bullet comes?”
Young kids have it even harder – and many don’t get the help they need
The mental health toll of gun violence is greatest on siblings and young children. Research shows sometimes they have more serious mental health issues than the survivors.
Dre’s younger brother was only 10 when Dre was shot at his friend’s birthday party. Suddenly, he was helping change diapers for his teenage brother.
“That's a big deal,” their mother, Yates-Dycus, said. “There were times where he was the only one in the house. So we had to do it. He would have to help me change him, bathe him, feed him, clean him, roll him over so we could adjust to the side that he slept on.”
It’s been eight years since the shooting, and Yates-Dycus said Dre’s brother still struggles with anxiety and major depression disorder. He’s seeing a mental health professional. But many survivors and family members do not get the mental health care they need.
One study in Indianapolis finds that even when survivors and their family members were interacting with the health care system in other settings for care related to their gun injuries, they were still not plugged into much-needed mental health services.
“So there are opportunities throughout the clinical system, such as the emergency room or primary care doctors, perhaps on discharge from the hospital,” said Magee of IUPUI, who authored the study.
Efforts to plug gaps, she said, could include making sure people touched by gun violence are screened for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and referred to treatment when needed.
Gun violence also has an economic toll
Gun violence costs the U.S. more than half a trillion dollars every year, according to a report by the non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety. That includes medical costs, police and criminal justice costs, and costs to employers and workers.
After Dre was shot, Yates-Dycus said he needed multiple surgeries and specialized care costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Insurance covered most of the costs, but the family was still left with a hefty amount to pay.
Yates-Dycus had to go back to work, and also needed to send Dre to a special rehab facility. But there were no such facilities in Indiana that would take a child as young as 13. The closest was a facility in Carbondale, Illinois – 280 miles away.
“That's when I lost my job,” she said, ”because he kept getting sick while he's there. And so I would have to go and do extensive hospital stays. The longest was a three-week stay.”
Turning a tragic incident into community support
As gun violence gets worse, there’s an urgent need for more resources to support survivors and their family members.
Yates-Dycus started a non-profit organization called Purpose 4 My Pain. She holds events and support groups – which she calls “grief sessions” – with other Black women who have had family members killed or injured by gun violence in Indianapolis.
At a recent grief session on Zoom, nine women gathered and talked about their struggles with insomnia, anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. One mother said she felt like her stomach was ripped open. Another one talked about pain in her shoulders and her neck.
“The effect that has on your mind, body and soul – it's really hard to put into words," Yates-Dycus said.
This story comes from a reporting collaboration that includes the Indianapolis Recorder and Side Effects Public Media, a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Contact Farah at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @Farah_Yousrym.