In 2020, gunshot wounds became the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in the United States. The damage left behind by gunshot wounds reverberates among survivors and families, sending mental health disorders soaring and shifting huge burdens onto the health care system, a new analysis of private health insurance claims shows.
“What comes after the gunshot is so often not talked about,” said Dr. Chana Sacks, co-director of the Gun Violence Prevention Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and an author of the new study, published on Monday in the journal Health Affairs.
For families in which a child died of a gunshot wound, surviving family members experienced a sharp increase in psychiatric disorders, taking more psychiatric medications and making more visits to mental health professionals: Fathers had a 5.3-fold increase in treatment for psychiatric disorders in the year after the death; mothers had a 3.6-fold increase; and surviving siblings had a 2.3-fold increase.
Children and teenagers who survive gunshot wounds become, as Dr. Sacks put it, “more like lifelong patients.” During the year after the injury, their medical costs rose by an average of $34,884, a 17-fold increase from baseline, driven by hospitalizations, emergency room visits and home health care, the study found.
Children and adolescents who survived the most severe gunshot wounds, requiring treatment in an intensive care unit, struggled considerably. In that group, diagnoses of pain disorders increased 293 percent, and psychiatric disorders increased by 321 percent.
The study examined medical records from 2,052 children who survived gunshots, 6,209 family members of children who survived, and 265 family members of children who died from gunshot wounds, comparing each with five controls. Because the study was based on private insurance claims, it did not reflect the experience of families who were uninsured or on public insurance.
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