Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine

Fall 2019

Leading the Narrative: How Do Researchers and Clinicians Discuss Gun Violence?

Katy Maher, PhD; Arlen C. Moller, PhD; and Sheela Raja, PhD ‚úČ; Violence and Trauma SIG

Gun violence is a central topic of conversation today and is featured in our president’s message to members in this issue of Outlook.  It is increasingly discussed on multiple platforms from political round tables, social media, television, coffee shops, and around the dinner table with family and friends. As the nation’s leading group of professionals dedicated to improving health and quality of life through behavioral science, we are increasingly called upon to discuss these issues. While writing this, three major mass shootings occurred within a single week, two within a thirteen-hour timespan, and a Chicago hospital went on diversion after several multi-shooting incidents.

At the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s 2019 Annual Meeting, we were challenged to “Lead the Narrative” and engage in public discourse about health.  Members of the Violence and Trauma SIG are conducting research and practicing at the intersection of trauma and health every day, often on the “front lines.” As behavioral health scientists, we know traumatic events, such as these, often have adverse influences on both physical and mental health. For this piece, three Violence and Trauma SIG members share their unique perspectives and experiences helping to lead the narrative on gun violence.

Dr. Katy Maher, Assistant Professor, Clinical Psychologist at a Level 1 Trauma Center

My "front line" was, three hours prior to writing this, sitting with a teenager in his hospital room of a level 1 trauma center as he processed anger around being shot and vivid nightmares. As a clinician who works with gun violence most days of the week, I am passionate about spreading evidence-based research and interventions to my colleagues and trainees, as well as our interdisciplinary team. For those interested in trauma research, I often refer to The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, a society ‘dedicated to sharing information about the effects of trauma’ and often attend their national conference (International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, n.d.). I also refer colleagues and peers to the Psychological First Aid Manual for basic tools of how to respond to acute trauma, such as relaxation or social connections (Brymer et al., 2006). For children, I often recommend the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, whose mission is to raise the standard of care and improve access to services for traumatized children, their families and communities throughout the United States’ and  has a variety of handouts such as "For Teens Coping after Mass Violence" or "Parent Guidelines for Helping Youth after Mass Violence Attack" (National Child Trauma Stress Network, n.d.). The US Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD also provides wonderful resources that educate individuals on what PTSD is and types of clinical interventions (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2019). By sharing these resources with others, I help spread accurate and evidence-based public health information.

Dr. Sheela Raja, Clinical Psychologist, Associate Professor, and Chair of SBM Violence and Trauma SIG

I lead the narrative by embracing the opportunity to educate people about gun violence. We are in the middle of a public health crisis and we urgently need to disseminate what we know to various media outlets—in simple ways that people can connect with. For example, if someone is already depressed, a gun in the home increases the chance of a lethal suicide attempt. A gun in the home increases the chances that women will be murdered in interpersonal violence and unsecured firearms are responsible for many accidental deaths and injuries of children (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, 2019). We cannot become emotionally numb as a populace; as researchers and clinicians, we must advocate and educate. Our Violence and Trauma SIG has co-authored policy briefs on this topic and I hope it’s just the beginning of what we can do.

Dr. Arlen Moller, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Psychology Programs

I’ve been trying to help lead the narrative on gun violence by creating and teaching an undergraduate course on Gun Violence, Psychology, and Public Health, and by freely sharing my course materials (syllabus, slides, and assignments) with others. This course has been very well-received by students, partly I think because I have really encouraged students to come to their own conclusions about the best evidence-based strategies available for reducing gun violence (Dimmer, 2018). We review a wide range of different types of gun violence and a wide range of potential solutions. Students are graded on their ability to cite and accurately summarize high quality evidence. Another feature of the course involves using behavioral science strategies to communicate more effectively at both the individual- and mass communication levels. Interested colleagues can find materials in references (Moller, 2018). SBM members who are open to learning online should review the free MOOC offered by Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Violence and Policy (Johns Hopkins University, n.d.). This course focuses on a public health perspective and takes approximately 18 hours to complete.


In sum, we echo Past-President Sherry Pagato’s message from last year that: “In an era where fake news and misinformation are spreading like wildfire, it is more imperative than ever that we communicate our science and public health messaging loudly and clearly.” We hope to grow the Violence and Trauma SIG more over the next year to amplify this message, and further lead the narrative on gun violence by leveraging and disseminating evidence-based behavioral science.