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Child Watch® Column: "Stress, Trauma, Loss, Rage"

Release Date: June 7, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

What if we looked at violence in America as a public health crisis rather than a crime problem? What if we look for promising practices and expanded the ones that work to eliminate the epidemic of violence that keeps our graveyards, jails, and prisons full? That is exactly the approach recommended by a panel of the nation’s leading gun violence researchers in a report released this week by the Institute of Medicine. Convened by the federal government in the wake of the Newtown shooting, the panel provides a national road map for the research that needs to be done to prevent gun violence and improve public safety, especially for our most vulnerable.

The odds against growing into a productive adulthood are almost overwhelming for Black boys, especially those from impoverished backgrounds. One in three will wind up in jail or prison, and some won’t survive to age 21: According to the FBI, in 2011 more than 6,300 African-Americans, mostly young men, were murdered in the United States. The Children’s Defense Fund’s 2012 national conference featured a panel of physicians and experts who look at this ongoing loss of life and human potential as a public health crisis.  Their viewpoint offers a fresh explanation for the culture of violence and points to ways to counteract it.

“We know that stress and trauma have an impact on physical and mental health and brain development,” said Dr. John Rich, Chair of the Department of Health Management and Policy at the Drexel University School of Public Health and director of the school’s Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. Dr. Rich interviewed scores of young men recuperating from knife or gunshot wounds and shared his findings in the book Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men. He found that many of our young people are under tremendous stress, “When these young men behave in ways we don’t like, what we should be asking them is not ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’” Dr. Rich noted that many of the young men he interviewed display the same symptoms of trauma, like hyper vigilance and emotional numbing, as soldiers returning from a war zone—and he sees many of the young people caught up in the cycle of violence not as inherently bad people needing punishment, but as injured people who need healing. 

Dr, Kenneth Hardy, professor of Family Therapy at Drexel University, said the young men and boys he meets in his practice come with a set of underlying and intertwined problems. The first is devaluation—persistent assaults to dignity. “Part of being Black means you are born into a group that tends to be devalued. Put on top of that male and poor.” Additional trauma comes from failure in school and sometimes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Dr. Hardy believes that persistent devaluation of poor Black boys and men is one reason many put such a high premium on respect, and real or perceived disrespect then often becomes the trigger point for violence.

Dr. Hardy has observed the erosion of community, relationships, and connectedness in impoverished neighborhoods where young people are often left to raise themselves and find a sense of belonging in the streets. There, violence is the accepted and expected way of settling conflicts and building a reputation as a man.  

A third, related reality for many poor Black boys and young men is loss, Dr. Hardy said: “Their lives are inundated by losses that are unacknowledged and ungrieved.” Some are tangible losses—a mother who is an alcoholic or drug addict and not available as a caring parent, a father in prison or gone without explanation. There are kindergartners who come to school with heavy hearts.  

But, Dr. Hardy continued, “Even more profound are the intangible losses—loss of hope, loss of future orientation. You hear the story over and over again: ‘I don’t expect to live beyond 19.’ It’s not about a lack of desire to live but a sense that life is so inundated with loss you can’t see beyond it.”

From this “massive, pervasive loss,” Hardy said, “rage is inevitable.” He distinguished rage from anger, a more immediate emotion: Rage is more bedrock, formed from layers of anger, and comes from degradation.

Once we observe this trauma and rage happening, how can we help heal it? Dr. Hardy said we need to find ways to counteract devaluation with a new narrative.  Punishment alone—the default in many American schools and the criminal justice system—is not effective in changing people and only adds to the devaluation.  

Dr. Robert Ross, a pediatrician who is the president and CEO of The California Endowment, shared examples of successful approaches he’s seen in their Healthy Communities initiative, including the simple power of programs that allow young people to tell their stories in a safe and supportive space. As Dr. Ross summed up the crisis, right now many people do not believe the health and mental health systems in America are dealing with the epidemic of violence, trauma, and stress in the lives of young people of color in a systematic and meaningful way: “There are systems that are derailing our young men into prison. We need to create a counter-system each step of the way.”

We all need to stand up for children and demand the federal government fund the research that needs to be done so we can jumpstart a cure to this national gun violence epidemic. We don’t have a moment to waste or another child to lose.


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Submitted by greyfox at: June 18, 2013
My heart goes out to you and our young black men's problems , but in reading over &over I don't find your answer on where to start but I pray for you and have been along time admirer of your stand for children.

Submitted by CSHE at: June 17, 2013
The correlation between violent behavior, chronic stress, and trauma are self evident to those of us in public health. Yet, too often our institutions – schools, the justice system and others - are reactive rather than proactive. The inclination is to punish rather than to treat. We understand all too well, that young boys of color, like many other vulnerable youth, are born into environments where systemic hopelessness and loss cultivate violent norms. Instead of receiving trauma care, these children are steered towards the prison pipeline and given only lip service to change the inequities that fuel the cycle. Thank you for this article. We recognize that when youth are not supported in achieving health and wellbeing, their chances of succeeding in school, and living healthy, prosperous lives is significantly diminished. In our work we address chronic stress and trauma as impediments to health and educational success. We also promote school-based health centers (SBHCs) as a resource for mitigating chronic exposure to violence – including an overarching approach for the assessment, intervention and evaluation of chronic stress as a consequence of violence and other conditions of poverty. As we wrestle with healthcare delivery, school reform, gun control and the other important issues of our day, we suggest that their intersection is undeniable and meaningful interventions must incorporate root cause, population based, health enhancing solutions. Terri D. Wright is Director of the Center for School, Health, and Education at the American Public Health Association. Visit http://www.schoolbasedhealthcare.org or follow us on Twitter at @stopdropout.

Submitted by Center for School, Health, and Education at: June 14, 2013
The correlation between violent behavior, chronic stress, and trauma are self evident to those of us in public health. Yet, too often our institutions – schools, the justice system and others - are reactive rather than proactive. The inclination is to punish rather than to treat. We understand all too well, that young boys of color, like many other vulnerable youth, are born into environments where systemic hopelessness and loss cultivate violent norms. Instead of receiving trauma care, these children are steered towards the prison pipeline and given only lip service to change the inequities that fuel the cycle. Thank you for this article. We recognize that when youth are not supported in achieving health and wellbeing, their chances of succeeding in school, and living healthy, prosperous lives is significantly diminished. In our work we address chronic stress and trauma as impediments to health and educational success. We also promote school-based health centers (SBHCs) as a resource for mitigating chronic exposure to violence – including an overarching approach for the assessment, intervention and evaluation of chronic stress as a consequence of violence and other conditions of poverty. As we wrestle with healthcare delivery, school reform, gun control and the other important issues of our day, we suggest that their intersection is undeniable and meaningful interventions must incorporate root cause, population based, health enhancing solutions. Terri D. Wright is Director of the Center for School, Health, and Education at the American Public Health Association. Visit http://www.schoolbasedhealthcare.org or follow us on Twitter at @stopdropout.

Submitted by Center for School, Health and Education at: June 14, 2013
The correlation between violent behavior, chronic stress, and trauma are self evident to those of us in public health. Yet, too often our institutions – schools, the justice system and others - are reactive rather than proactive. The inclination is to punish rather than to treat. We understand all too well, that young boys of color, like many other vulnerable youth, are born into environments where systemic hopelessness and loss cultivate violent norms. Instead of receiving trauma care, these children are steered towards the prison pipeline and given only lip service to change the inequities that fuel the cycle. Thank you for this article. We recognize that when youth are not supported in achieving health and wellbeing, their chances of succeeding in school, and living healthy, prosperous lives is significantly diminished. In our work we address chronic stress and trauma as impediments to health and educational success. We also promote school-based health centers (SBHCs) as a resource for mitigating chronic exposure to violence – including an overarching approach for the assessment, intervention and evaluation of chronic stress as a consequence of violence and other conditions of poverty. As we wrestle with healthcare delivery, school reform, gun control and the other important issues of our day, we suggest that their intersection is undeniable and meaningful interventions must incorporate root cause, population based, health enhancing solutions. Terri D. Wright is Director of the Center for School, Health, and Education at the American Public Health Association. Visit http://www.schoolbasedhealthcare.org or follow us on Twitter at @stopdropout.

Submitted by Mari at: June 11, 2013
I will share this article with all in my email group. It's a must read. Prisons have become privatized money machines___it's a job. Our job is to keep our children out of them. I cringe when I read about schools that only think to call the police for children as young as kindergarten age when they act out in school. Therefore the message at an early age becomes, "you belong in jail."

Submitted by Tree at: June 10, 2013
We have a group of 140 physicians in Ann Arbor formed to work on gun violence. As a leader I can't imagine a better goal than enhancing the chances for young males as well as decreasing the chances of being involved in gun violence or any violence.

Submitted by BJ at: June 10, 2013
The concepts presented in this article hit the nail-on-the-head. One of my concerns for many decades is that the structural violence within which many children in the USA are immersed in - is not an accident. The "accident" is that we put blinders on and submerge the truths outlined in this post and related articles. We avert our gaze and our minds/hearts. My other question, here, pertains to girls and young women. They are not mentioned...why is this? I am aware of the stats, and obviously boys/young men are far more likely to be involved in felonies involving violence/use of weapons. And males overwhelm the ranks in prison. Yet, there is also a story to be told of girls and young women; a story which ranks equally if studying the impact and effects of enormous stressors on the health of our youth. Finally, I have found it yet another massive tragedy in the US, to see that the so-called "War on Drugs" was, in essence, a way to strip away all the gains of civil and human rights achieved by leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. We have effectively re-instituted conditions/barriers/bars which negate the humanity of our black or brown brethren. We have no right to declare meaningful resolution to the problems of racism, segregation, or civil rights in the US. I find this tragic beyond words.

Submitted by Betty Anderson at: June 10, 2013
As an enrolled member of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe [MN], much of information written mirrors many of the trauma our children and adults face, both now and historically. A background of working w/in the content of educational and/or legal arena, has continued to produce story after story of people experiencing multi-faceted trauma. In delving into research based studies dealing w/topics surrounding our Native people, The ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES STUDY [ACE} has been outstanding in outlining the dynamics of trauma and areas of dealing w/trauma. Dr. Robert Anda, MD,MS with the Centers for Disease Control[CDC] and Prevention along with Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, MD with Kaiser Permanente had co-authored this study. I would like to refer you to this site in hopes this collaborative study between the CDC Atlanta, GA & Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, CA can add to your base of support when we try to understand what is happening w/in our children and adults to apply the correct methods to begin to reduce trauma or at least, begin to understand the "5 W's" of what is happening.

Submitted by Nelly Maseda MD at: June 10, 2013
This piece is so eloquent, informative and right on target, it should be read by all Americans. I am a pediatrician in the Bronx, raised by a single mother on welfare, my two brothers dropped out of high school and are now dead. It is my daily wish that they had suffered less, that my patients suffer less all of what this piece points out. I wrote about this in my memoir "Strangers in the Night, the effects of Mentally Ill Mothers on Their Children", because single mother's rage taken out on their children is a terrorism threat we need to fight. But "fight" with education, compassion and accept we are all connected in one common humanity.

Submitted by Emagin-Y at: June 9, 2013
Our culture, reinforced by our socio-economic system, is why this problem exists. Until there is a change away from the "winner-takes-all" ethic, these conditions will continue. Those who profit from this system like it this way, they have a vested interest to keep it this way.

Submitted by Michele Engel at: June 9, 2013
This is an excellent article. Intervening in time--and intervening effectively--seems to be a major hurdle in getting at-risk kids the help they need. SO much damage is done at such an early age in homes where parents are struggling with addictive behaviors, racial discrimination, poverty, the threat of gang- and drug-related violence, and other health, safety, and security issues. There is so much to be done and so few resources, it seems. And then there's the challenge of changing public policy to support appropriate solutions. I just wonder whether we have sufficient leadership and compassion in this country to turn this horrifying situation around. I sure don't have much money to spare, but I'll be donating to Children's Defense Fund.

Submitted by Beagle lp at: June 9, 2013
I think it's awesome. We need to strive to make our children ours, support and be present for them so they don't look in the street what they can't find at home

Submitted by Tinker at: June 8, 2013
I really appreciate this outstanding, thoughtful, very timely column on the tragic problem of gun violence in American society. Thank you.

Submitted by Suz at: June 8, 2013
Right on!

Submitted by Jackie at: June 8, 2013
I wish that I could believe that our elected officials actual cared about ANY child. Their inaction has lead me to believe that GREED is what governs America. Money rules. How can we as average American citizens make a difference or be heard when the only people they listen to a billionaires !

Submitted by murphy at: June 8, 2013
What I would like to know is what can be done as a private citizen as opposed to belonging to a designated group. Does this require a petition that could be signed or any other ideas? Would be interested to hear back. Thanks, Murphy43mary@aol.com

Submitted by Herb at: June 8, 2013
I am looking into producing a short film to deglamorize the hustling life-style. The cherished life-style of the inner-city youth.

Submitted by Joy at: June 8, 2013
As a Clinical Social Worker I heartily agree. There is much more as well!

Submitted by BPositive at: June 8, 2013
A focus on helping parents learn positive parenting methods that are loving and lift up their children is critical in this discussion. Discipline can be both kind and firm. It should acknowledge a child's need for autonomy rather than trying to control the child at all costs. Discipline should teach problem solving skills - rather than rely on punishment/fear/intimidation. This is critical in helping children feel connected to family, peers and community. Positive Discipline (c) is such a parenting curriculum. It teaches that children need a sense of belonging and significance, above all. Parents who resort to punishment, disconnect from their children, leaving them to rebel or feel anger and resentment; and thereby setting up an inner struggle in the child to seek belonging elsewhere. "Connect before you correct...see mistakes as opportunities to learn...not punish!"

Submitted by necrohead at: June 8, 2013
Marian, I am a 57 year old white woman. I never had to fight an uphill battle to just grow up. The inequity in this country is more than shameful. I enjoyed your article and agree with you wholeheartedly. I got schooling from you today.