Emotional distress tied to weapon use for teens

(Reuters Health) - Even though a wide range of social and economic factors may influence whether teens get involved with weapons, two things appear to increase the odds for white, black and Hispanic youth alike – emotional distress and substance abuse – a recent U.S. study suggests.

Earlier involvement with weapons is also tied to higher future odds of carrying or using a gun or knife for youth in all three groups, the study found.

Among teens that carried weapons, 17 percent had shot or stabbed someone in the past year, the analysis of survey data also found.

“Based on data from our study, the majority of teens who carry weapons had not shot or stabbed anyone,” said lead author Dr. Rashmi Shetgiri of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

“Weapon carrying and weapon use are correlated with each other, so it is not surprising that a proportion of youth who carried weapons also had used weapons,” Shetgiri added by email.

At a time when almost 13 percent of U.S. high school students report being victimized by weapons, Shetgiri and colleagues took a look at data from the 1990s when this wasn’t so common and searched for clues that might explain what factors could motivate kids to today to reach for guns and knives.

Researchers analyzed responses from national surveys of 20,745 students in grades 7 through 12 and 17,670 of their parents done in 1994 and 1995, as well as follow-up surveys with 14,738 of the teen participants done in 1996. The teen interviews were approximately one year apart.

Roughly 13 percent of black, 10 percent of Hispanic and 7 percent of white high school students said they were involved with weapons.

Compared to youth who didn’t use weapons at the start of the study, white teens that did were five times more likely to also do so at the time of the second interview, the survey found. Black teens had more than four times the odds of using weapons at the end if they did so at the start, while for Hispanic adolescents the chances were more than six times higher.

Violence exposure, alcohol use and peer delinquency were risk factors for white and black teens using weapons. It’s possible that among teens exposed to violence, weapon carrying may be in self-defense or a response to fear of violence, the authors note.

Gun availability in the home was a factor associated only with weapons involvement for black teens, the study also found.

High educational aspirations, however, were associated with a decreased risk of weapons involvement for both black and Hispanic teens, and stronger family connections was also a deterrent for Hispanic youth.

One limitation of the study is that data dates back two decades, the authors note in the Journal of Pediatrics. They also lacked data on youth who were not attending school or who were incarcerated, which might downplay weapons use.

Even so, the findings suggest that strategies to reduce teen weapon violence might focus on some common factors such as mental health and substance abuse, as well as certain contributors that may vary by race or ethnicity, the authors suggest.

“Knowing which groups are victimized or who have certain high risk behaviors can help healthcare providers and public health systems anticipate social support and education needs,” Dr. Denise Dowd, a researcher at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City who wasn’t involved in the study said by email.

The best approach also depends on what issue is most urgent to solve, noted Kimberly Mitchell, a researcher at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire who wasn’t involved in the study.

“If the immediate and main concern is carrying the weapon, steps like metal detectors and police presence may be the approach,” Mitchell said by email.

“Since carrying and using a weapon rarely occurs in isolation … we often recommend a broader approach to prevention such as socio-emotional learning programs which aim to help people understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, fell and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions,” Mitchell added.

SOURCE: Journal of Pediatrics, published online January 14, 2016.