Today, adolescents make up about 13% of the population. In 2014, almost one in five adolescents, (which is 18% out of the 82% that are not living in poverty) were living in families with incomes below the poverty line (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services). Poverty comes with many problems, one of them is being in an unsafe environment and being exposed to violence. Adolescents are more likely to be targeted by violence by any other age group to be targeted of a violent crime. Imagined teens who have to walk out their home fearing of what they might see on the streets or being a target themselves. Violence is a symptom of poverty and so is a teen’s mental health. Just being exposed to violence can have an effect on a teen’s brain. So, my question is: How does exposing to community violence have an affect an adolescents’ psychological health and what can we do about this issue?
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Community violence is defined as, “Exposure to intentional acts of interpersonal violence committed in public areas by individuals who are not intimately related to the victim contributes to toxic stress, prolonged activation of stress response systems, with a failure of the body to recover fully” (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network). According to The Violence Policy, “Individuals who live in high-crime neighborhoods are in an increased risk for experiencing toxic stress marked by community violence”. Examples of community violence include gang disputes bullying and shootings.
Adolescents that had dealt with early life adversity, they are more susceptible to developing trauma from witnessing violence than those that hadn’t had a childhood incidence. Early life adversity is when a child is living in an environment where abuse, neglect, dysfunction occurs. It is similar to a “piling effect” if the child is affected by one thing and on top of that being exposed to violence they are more “immune” to developing trauma than those that hadn’t have an incident in their childhood where they viewed violence in their household for instance.
Traumatic experiences for both witnesses and victims can cause psychological and behavioral consequences. The Violence Policy Center says that “Exposure to community violence as a victim or witness is associated with a number of emotional and behavioral problems including posttraumatic stress symptoms, internalizing symptoms, suicidal behavior, antisocial behavior, social withdrawal, substance use, and academic problems” (National Center for Biotechnology Information).
However, Rosenthal found that victimization and witnessing community violence were independently related to various distress symptoms, victims were more having a strong relationship to anger and those that witness violence had a slightly stronger relationship to anger. But both have a small to moderate relationship (National Center of Biotechnology Information)
Although the research shows inconsistent findings of the relationship between community violence exposure (CVE) and mental health symptoms in urban adolescents, there was evidence of an association between CVE and increased depressive symptoms, anxiety, PTS and aggression. Aggression and PTS had the strongest relationship while depression and anxiety had significant correlations (National Center of Biotechnology Information). To make the findings more specific, the Violence Policy Center asserts that, adolescent girls are more likely to suffer from depression and withdrawal, while boys more frequently display hypersensitivity to perceived threats (The Violence Policy Center).
Apart from the symptoms of exposure of community violence, it does shape the teens growing brain. Even though this is a physiological aspect; it does show evidence on the parts of the brain it is affecting which is causing the psychological problems. Darby Saxbe, a professor at the University of Southern California did a study with a team of researchers, their goal is to see whether individuals the structure and function of their brain differ in their early teen years compared to their late teen years.
The study consists of 22 participants that were the age of 13. Before the study began, they were assigned a checklist of community violence experiences ranging from watching someone get arresting to seeing someone get threatened with a beating or stabbing. After four years they took the community violence survey when the youth were around 17 years old and had their brained scanned. The focus on the most critically important brain structures, the hippocampus, and amygdala which is known for its involvement in emotion and threat-related processing.
They then used their data to find that “witnessing violence in early adolescence predicted smaller volumes of both the hippocampus and amygdala in this group of teens.”. In addition, having a smaller amygdala is linked with depression risk and behavior problems. The less volume the hippocampus and amygdala are comparing the different participants the more violence the individuals were exposed to especially those that live in high crime areas.
In the Health Day an article titled Gun Violence Takes Toll on Kids’ Mental health by Carrie Myers quotes a co-author Kimberly Mitchell, a research assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.
“Exposure to violence involving highly lethal weapons is associated with higher trauma symptoms, over and above exposure to all other types of violence, making it a strong contributor to adolescent depression, anxiety and aggression,”. Weapons such as a gun or a knife cause the most trauma than comparing to a psychical altercation. The researchers said that “…witnessing an incident involving a lethal weapon is as traumatic as being the victim.” When in fact witnessing something that can potentially kill someone might make the victim even more afraid of being a victim themselves. Being stabbed or being shot at you are at a higher likelihood that you might be killed than just getting threatened or chased (with no weapon involved).
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compared to other mental health issues is most frequently and strongly associated with exposure to community violence (The Violence Policy Center). PTSD is defined by the Mayo Clinic as, “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing it or witnessing it. Adolescents that suffer from PTSD are likely to be triggered by memories every time they out and about, passing the scene of the event.
This month in Chicago Tribune, E’lonye Harris, whose an18-year-old, was shot last year talks about his recovery near the University of Chicago Woodlawn Social Services Center on April 10, 2019. Harris is a innocent victim, three bullets tore through his body. He mentions that the mental trauma proved much harder to heal than the psychical wounds. His PTSD manifesting in blackouts and feelings of danger when he is outside. The PTSD was so great that he dropped out of high school, he dreamed of playing college football in two years. Luckily, he is currently in therapy and this fall he will be going back to school. He doesn’t want PTSD to take away his ambitions.
Unfortunately, community violence cannot come to standstill due to poverty being the main culprit of creating an unsafe environment. But there are ways that we can reduce violence. First, we need to know what the main source is causing individuals to be affected by violence in the low-income communities. Lethal weapons such as guns causes the most trauma for people, especially those that survived the bullet. Therefore, gun violence is the main source of violence. Which means that some sort of policy should be in place.
In the Violence Policy Center, it says that having “An increased understanding of how trauma influences development, health, and behavior can lead to changes in the way many social services are delivered as well as policy at the local and federal levels”. If having more knowledge within the gun violence community, it will help inform strategies that will reduce weapon-deaths and also reduce how much exposure of violence people see on the streets. There are many policy recommendations will help aid in the reduction of trauma and lethal violence that helps put a law in order.
Since low income areas where crime tend to be the highest, it often does not have the social services and supports available. So, the one recommendation that will help those that are impacted by violence is by “increasing investments in community-based organizations to enable high-quality, targeted services to individuals who are in need. This includes resources for additional raining hiring of staff management information systems to facilitate data collection and /or expansion of existing”. Training can be provided on recognize trauma and also develop skill to address it. In addition, creating funding programs and activities will help teens to cope with trauma (Urban institute). This can insure teens stay out the street as well as building safety nets and relationships.
In a blog title “Where do criminal get guns?” By Samuel Bieler states that “if we can determine which source is the most important, lawmakers can design policies to help keep weapons out of criminals’ hands” (Urban Wire). Concerningly, firearms are somehow accessed by many sources and we don’t know for sure exactly which source individuals are being accessed them, especially since poorer people keep attaining guns. Some sources can be by gangs and social networks, thieves, and corrupt firearm dealers. Research needs to be established on how criminals in low income communities in order for development and implemented new strategies thus keeping guns out of criminal hands. These solutions can reduce gun violence which will then reduce gun violence and lower the crime in high crime areas.
- Bieler, Samuel. “Where do criminals get guns?.”, Urban Wire::Crime and Justice, 13 Dec. 2013,https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/where-do-criminals-get-guns.
- Langley, Marty. “The Relationship Between Community Violence and Trauma”. 2017. PDF. www.vpc.org/studies/trauma17.pdf
- McGill, Tia M et al. “Effects of Exposure to Community Violence and Family Violence on School Functioning Problems among Urban Youth: The Potential Mediating Role of Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms.” Frontiers in public health, vol. 2 8. 7 Feb. 2014, doi:10.3389/fpubh.2014.00008
- Myers, Carrie. “Gun Violence Takes Toll on Kids Mental Health.” “Health Day, Jun. 2015 https://consumer.healthday.com/mental-health-information-25/child-psychology-news-125/gun-violence-takes-toll-on-kids-mental-health-study-finds-700118.html
Saxbe, Darby. “Living with Neighborhood Violence May Shape Teens’ Brains”. ” The Conversation”, Jun.2018. https://theconversation.com/living-with-neighborhood-violence-may-shape-teens-brains-92490
- “The Changing Face of America’s Adolescents”. “Office of Adolescent Health” https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/facts-and-stats/changing-face-of-americas-adolescents/index.html
- Yin, Alice. “Treating Trauma in Children After the Physical Wounds Have Healed: ‘I Want to Start Fresh’. “Chicago Tribune”, Apr. 2019 https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-childhood-trauma-gun-violence-uofc-20190410-story.html