Diverse City

I’ve felt a lot of grief lately while trying to process the daily news. And I know others have too, including young people I’ve spoken with about their own struggles with current events and mental health. One of those stories unfolded Nov. 14 when 22-year-old Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., a University of Virginia student, allegedly opened fire and killed three fellow football players, wounding two others. A school spokesperson says Jones was facing disciplinary action for not disclosing a previous misdemeanor conviction involving a concealed weapon. His father says his son was suffering from paranoia.

Three people are dead, two are injured, one is likely headed to prison. Families are devastated and a community is left reeling.

The shooter and those murdered are young Black males, fueling the Black-on-Black crime narrative, but we all know gun violence happens in every neighborhood — and is robbing all of our children.

Another story: The now-notorious Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting carried out last spring by Salvador Ramos, who used a rifle to kill 19 students and two teachers and wound 17 others. These were babies whose lives were snuffed out before they had a chance to get started.

And between these relatively recent shootings, in communities all across our country, there have been more acts of gun violence committed by young people than the readers of this column could collectively count on our fingers and toes. This kind of grief is complicated, overwhelming and numbing. 

Both of these stories involve people in their teens and early 20s. And, it can reasonably be argued that acts this senseless represent some form a mental break in reasoning and judgment. I am not a psychotherapist, so I won’t attempt to diagnose anybody. But the reality is that our young people are struggling with mental wellness at levels we’ve not seen before. According to health care experts in President Joe Biden’s administration, rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts were on the rise prior to the pandemic, but COVID has disrupted routines, tested relationships and increased isolation, worsening mental health struggles for many. 

Back here at home, since 2014, Colorado has consistently ranked in the top 10 nationwide when it comes to youth suicide rates (with the exception of 2017, when there were still 11 deaths) and our state is kind of notorious for mass shootings. The irony? Although health outcomes vary by county, Colorado is often lauded for being one of the healthiest states in the country.

I’m not here to argue or justify the morality of mass shooters, but it is clear that the root causes of gun violence by young people in our nation — whether self-inflicted or used to destroy others — can be complicated and multifaceted. James Densley, professor of criminal justice at Minnesota’s Metropolitan State University, says, “many of these mass shootings are angry suicides.” James Lankford, a professor of criminology at the University of Alabama, told FiveThirtyEight, “Homicides are rarely premeditated but public mass shootings almost always are.” Lankford went on to say, “These are individuals who are planning in advance to commit a crime for which there’s almost no chance they’ll avoid life imprisonment or death as a direct result of the crime. It’s very reasonable to say that they’re not very invested in their current lives, or their future lives.”

Colorado recently announced plans to invest a half-billion dollars in mental health. Some should be specifically dedicated to understanding the correlation between mental health, suicides and mass shootings in hopes of one day curtailing gun violence. I am hopeful.