How gun violence affects the mental health of Philadelphia children

gun violence children philadelphia
A child’s bike left at the scene of a shooting in Philadelphia, on Tuesday, July 4, 2023.
Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Through July 2023 there have been 1,065 shooting victims in Philadelphia, breaking down to roughly five people shot daily. Of those 1,065 shooting victims 111 have been children, just over 10%. 

From 2013 to 2021, the number of homicides by gun more than doubled from 246 to 562, steadily rising every year. Although there was a slight decrease in shooting deaths from 2021 to 2022 and 2023 is trending better than both of those years, there is still a generation of children that were raised simultaneously to the rate of gun violence rising.

“I think about gun violence 2-3 times a week, because of certain events,” said 13-year-old South Philly native Brandon Rodreguiz. Highlighting that “a kid got shot down the street like 20 times” near the corner store that his family owns and operates.

His mother, Marlene explained: “There was a homicide over here where there was a 17 year old that got shot like 20 times. So if your kids are outside and you think about that, you know, even if Brandon goes outside, I freak out if I can’t reach him or I don’t know where he’s at because I think something happened to him.”

The shooting that they’re referencing happened on Feb. 2, 2023 just a half of a block away from Point Breeze’s Wharton Square Park where 17-year-old Isaiah Odom was shot more than 20 times while riding his bike. This case is still unsolved.

Traffic drives through an intersection near the scene of a fatal shooting spree, Thursday, July 6, 2023, in Philadelphia.AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Walter Holloway, 28, the father of an 8 year old, was enjoying the playground with his son at Wharton Square Park, nearly six months after the killing. “It’s a thought every day, you know, with the gun violence in Philadelphia, let alone throughout the country. It’s really on an all time rise and it needs to stop for the simple fact that we don’t understand that it’s affecting our generation of kids, you know, their future,” he said while watching his son play on the jungle gym.

Holloway is a licensed gun-owner. “You know, my generation is sadly dying off and unfortunately it’s (because of) no proper gun control,” noting that he doesn’t bring his gun to places like the park “because, yes, things can happen at a park but you have your local law enforcement that can handle that situation.” Holloway is no stranger to gun violence, losing one of his best friends in a shooting on 18th and Tasker, and his cousin who was shot in front of his wife and kids.

Metro asked 13-year-old Brandon “Do you know kids your age with guns?” He said “Yeah,” explaining that “some people think you need a gun, they think when they get a gun, they’re tough.”

He noted that it’s harder to be a kid in Philly than other places because “as a kid you want to go outside, you want to have fun. But with all this happening, you can barely do that.”

Taking a toll

According to a Penn Medicine study, children residing within an eighth of a mile, or 2-3 blocks of an episode of gun violence, had greater odds of having a mental health-related Emergency Department visit.

“Now that we have confirmed that exposure to shootings negatively impacts the mental health of children, we can work to develop ways to provide preventive and responsive support for children and families exposed to neighborhood gun violence,” said Aditi Vasan, MD, MSHP, a pediatric hospitalist and health services researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

“Symptoms of mental health distress in children appear within days of being exposed to a single shooting. What’s more, in Philadelphia and other cities across the United States, gun violence disproportionately affects Black children and families, adding to existing health disparities,” added senior author Eugenia South, MD, Faculty Director of the Penn Urban Health Lab.

Roxborough Philadelphia
Police vehicles are parked at Roxborough High School near where multiple people were shot in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The effects of gun violence on adolescents goes far beyond the streets. According to Everytown Research & Policy Center, which tracks every incident of gunfire on school grounds, “since 2013 there were at least 1,093 incidents of gunfire on school grounds.” Their data also states that in 2023, there have been 68 shootings on school grounds—3 of which took place in Philadelphia schools.

The local shootings that happened on school property include a 26-year-old who was shot in the leg while sitting on the front steps of Julia De Burgos Elementary School, a 7th grader who fired a gun in the bathroom of E. Washington Rhodes Elementary School, and a shooting outside of Heston Elementary School where bullets flew into the main office of the school. 

According to an Amnesty International report on gun violence: “Endemic firearm violence can have a particularly serious impact on children and adolescents, including by disrupting school attendance and retention, damaging the learning environment, and reducing the quality of teaching.”

Local resources

We Love Philly is a local nonprofit that provides programming to ensure high school-aged students graduate. 

Executive Director Carlos Aponte told Metro that “at least once a month one of my students knows someone whose been shot. It affects their mental health because they do not feel safe and secure. It’s been going on their entire lives. So it’s almost getting to the point now where it’s just a ‘yeah, well, this is how it is’ mentality and like apathetic.”

Some hope can be found in the fact that homicides by gun in Philadelphia dropped 8% from 2021 to 2022, and from 2022 to 2023 there is currently a 22% decrease in homicides. There have been efforts by local Philadelphia activists and organizations to prevent gun violence and provide aid to victims. 

Last month, anti-violence group Philly Stand Up and Vice-Chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners Office Omar Sabir led a protest along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. Activist Ant Brown is engaging the youth in conversations about gun violence and was recognized by PA State Senator Art Haywood for his accomplishments. Social media pages like “@nogunzone” have been revealing the raw, harsh reality of gun violence throughout the city. There are dozens of initiatives and independent efforts towards preventing gun violence that have been working hard in local communities.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has a Center for Violence Prevention. The Children’s Advocacy Project of Philadelphia has a directory of violence reduction and victims resources. And Drexel University’s College of Medicine runs the Healing Hurt People program that provides trauma-focused counseling among other things. 

In 2021, the Together Through Trauma program was developed to help prevent gun violence and aid victims. This summer, the program partnered with the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department to connect with children at camp and engage with the community.

Syeeda Martin, the Program Director of Together Through Trauma, told 96.1 WURD “we recognize that a lot of this gun violence is caused by trauma and PTSD.” Martin explained that the program will involve trauma-based therapy, as well as improving communication skills and emotional expression. She poignantly expressed that their approach to solving these complex problems are dependent on gaining the communities trust and addressing their needs, noting “in order for us to know what (people) need, we need to talk with them.”