SPHHS researchers eye studies on guns

The School of Public Health and Health Services is looking to increase research on mental health and gun violence, four months after the shooting in Newtown, Conn. propelled the issues to the forefront of the national debate.

Public health school dean Lynn Goldman said more research would benefit the District, a gun violence-prone city, and could become a stronger focus for the school, but balked at a full-fledged effort because researchers need to work around federal funding constraints.

“We care about expanding the pool of knowledge about how to prevent gun violence,” Goldman said. “Some of that research inevitably also will begin to tell us more about what’s actually going on with gun violence in this community.”

She said a GW-hosted panel discussion held Friday could serve as a catalyst for future interdisciplinary research. The talk brought together experts from fields including public health and child and forensic psychology – fields that are typically involved in both mental health and gun violence research.

Conversations on gun violence research have escalated since President Barack Obama lifted a 17-year ban on gun violence research in January. The president also asked Congress to approve $10 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on gun violence prevention.

The move was part of a series of 23 actions, including legislative proposals that have caused strife between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Five states have toughened gun laws since the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook massacre, including Maryland and Connecticut, which passed laws Thursday. Ten other states have loosened their gun laws this year.

During Friday’s discussions, panelists spoke about the challenges of identifying someone who could be violent toward others and the role of schools in providing care for mentally ill children. The panelists agreed that the Newtown shooting was the most influential factor in the recent call for research.

“This discussion is very different than the discussion we’ve had over the last 30 years. This was the gunning down of little kids. It has totally changed the conversation,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said.

Goldman added that the school should prioritize gun violence prevention because of the prevalence of gun violence in D.C.

“We have many children who have lost their lives, many families that have been affected. Many kids in D.C. actually know kids who have been shot, kids who have died,” Goldman said.

But the school must compete for limited funding to start conducting research surrounding gun violence and mental illness.

Research budgets across major federal funding agencies have also stagnated or shrunk in recent years, especially since Congress and the White House did not take action against automatic spending cuts last month.

Although faculty are currently researching gun violence, specifically among minority groups, Goldman said they would be ready for an “explosion in research” on mental health and gun violence if the funding became available.

Kathleen Roche, an associate professor in the public health school, researches violence among adolescents in urban neighborhoods. That conversation, she said, must examine the role of guns, school mental health services and poverty.

Schools like Duke and Johns Hopkins universities are both well-known for conducting research regarding mental health and gun violence prevention.

Beth McGinty, a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said studies have been delayed because people with mental illness are responsible for few incidences of violence. Without a larger sample, it is difficult to conduct a viable study, she said.

Provost Steven Lerman said in an interview Friday that he expects to see more faculty interested in the research questions, and suggested studying the differences between state gun laws to see how more or fewer regulations affect gun violence.

“As things change, there’s a tremendous opportunity for research, but somebody has to do it. Somebody has to look at these questions,” Lerman said. “I think there’s a heightened awareness in public health officials that they have some role in helping us understand how the actions we take in the public and private sphere actually have impact on gun violence.”

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