4 practical steps to protect Black youth from gun violence

Say no to guns. Adobe Stock Photo

Gun violence is a complicated issue in our country. However, some facts are straightforward: Exposure to gun violence — homicide, suicide, and accidents — profoundly affects the behavioral health of children and adolescents.

While no group of children has been spared from gun violence, Black youth bear the biggest burden of gun-related homicides. While white children are more likely to die by suicide, gun-related suicide for Black children is rising and, for the first time, exceeding the rate of suicide in white children.

How can parents, guardians, family and community members protect Black youth?

  1. Practice gun safety

“Research shows people are not going to get rid of guns in their homes,” Says Dr. David A. Brent, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, Epidemiology, and Clinical and Translational Science and Endowed Chair in Suicide Studies at Pitt.

With this in mind, Dr. Brent  encourages gun owners to practice gun safety on children’s behalf. “For example, store guns empty and separate from ammunition in a safe place away from kids,” he says. “Lock them up and only let a few people use the key or passcode.” Gun locks on each weapon provide an added layer of protection.

“Taking these steps is important for children’s safety and health,” Dr. Brent notes. “They’re essential for a child who’s having behavioral health issues, like depression, or is experiencing a mental health crisis.”


Education, too, plays a protective roll. Local neighborhood programs that teach gun owners how to handle firearms responsibly can raise awareness and reduce gun-related accidents.

Honest conversations with healthcare providers about gun ownership must also happen in the same way  as conversations about wearing bike helmets and seat belts.

  1. Promote conversations about carrying weapons

While about half of U.S. gun owners carry weapons as protection against crime, many scientists who study gun violence agree that guns make society more dangerous.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, in homes with guns, there’s an increased risk of gun-related suicide and homicide, especially against women.

“Carrying a gun for protection can ruin two lives,” says Dr. Brent. “Yours and the other person in the confrontation.”

Open, honest, and non-judgmental discussions about the risks and responsibilities of carrying firearms can help people make informed decisions about gun ownership and usage.

Community-based programs like Reimagine ReEntry and the CommUnity Hospital Violence Intervention Project, promote non-violent conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques that lead to safer environments for everyone.

  1. Address youth mental health

 “Gun violence is traumatic and takes a toll on kids’ health,” says Dr. Brent. “Children who experience it often develop PTSD the same way people do in combat. The trauma puts them at a higher risk for engaging in dangerous behaviors, like substance abuse. They’re also more likely to experience social isolation, depression, and other disorders.”

Dr. Brent leads the ETUDES Center, which consists of a team of approximately 40 researchers from UPMC, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and other institutions  to develop new ways to bridge mental health disparities in children and adolescents who live in marginalized communities.

“We’re creating technology-based tools we hope will help reduce youth suicide for kids who don’t have equal access to psychiatric services,” says Dr. Brent. “We’re providing the services in primary care where there’s less stigma and where marginalized youth and families feel more comfortable getting treatment.”

Dr. Brent’s team is studying how to use smartphone apps to track behavior changes that may lead to suicide attempts. Data is observed and collected over time by looking at actions like physical movement, sleep, and texting language. “If we can detect these behavioral changes, we can hopefully intervene and prevent a suicide attempt,” he says.

The team is also using technology to help at-risk youth create personal safety plans for suicide prevention and deal with things like cyberbullying via coping mechanisms and disengagement.

In Dr. Brent’s study, Black youth make up 35-40% of the participants. They and  their family members/caregivers provide input for interventions. “We’re counting on their lived experiences to help us design technology that makes a difference,” says Dr. Brent. Families that are interested in learning more about ETUDES can ask their doctor for a referral. Or they can email Dr. Brent at brentda@upmc.edu.

  1. Take advantage of mental health resources to create a safe environment

For children who’ve experienced gun violence, or who struggle with emotional and behavioral issues like substance use, anxiety, and mood disorders, Dr. Brent encourages parents to create safe environments that begin with a visit to a doctor.  A physician or therapist can help to create a safety plan, which can reduce the risk for a suicide attempt.

“Any clinic or pediatrician associated with Children’s Hospital can get access to behavioral health delivered in a pediatric setting,” notes Dr. Brent. “Pediatricians can get in touch with psychiatrists in real time through a program called TiPs. That includes psychiatric assistance and help creating a care plan.

For children in a mental health crisis, Dr. Brent recommends Resolve. Resolve is  a free, 24/7 crisis service available to Allegheny County residents. It includes child and adolescent home, school, and community support. Special care is available for kids who’ve been identified at high risk for psychiatric hospitalization or out-of-home placement.

Resolve services are sponsored by Allegheny County and UPMC Western Psych. No referral or appointment is needed. A walk-in center is located at 333 North Braddock Ave. The intake number is  412-864-5065 (non-crisis) and 1-888-796-8226 (crisis).

 “To lose someone you love to gun violence — or to see your child suffering because of it — is something no one should experience,” say Dr. Brent. “That’s why we’re trying to inform people and create solutions that make mental health services more equitable.”



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