Children in Violent Neighborhoods Can Suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Most people who know about it associate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with soldiers coming home from war or with adults who've suffered severe trauma, like rape. But mental health professionals worry more and more that kids who grow up in violent neighborhoods suffer from some level of PTSD. As part of KPCC's focus on mental health issues, Frank Stoltze reports on gang violence and post traumatic stress.

Frank Stoltze: In some Southern California neighborhoods, it's easy to find kids who've lived with gang violence.

Alan: I was walking up to my apartment and I saw this guy just walking by, like regular, and they told him where he was from and he said some crew and they shot him. He got shot on his torso and on his head.

Stoltze: Fifteen-year-old Alan lives near MacArthur Park just west of downtown Los Angeles.

Alan: I've had three friends die of gang violence, and they weren't even from a gang. They just dressed like it. It made me pretty upset. I cried for two of them, and then the third one, I was just like, in shock. I was like, wow. I can't believe that just happened again.

Stoltze: Marleen Wong supervises crisis counseling for students in the L.A. Unified School District.

Marleen Wong: What we've learned is that they are just as vulnerable to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as any soldier in a war zone.

Stoltze: That's because street violence can be equally acute as combat, and just as persistent. It's also because kids' brains are still developing, so they're more vulnerable to outside experiences. They are less capable than adults of putting experiences into context. One study found that 27% of students surveyed in south and east L.A. had classic PTSD symptoms: they were easily startled, had difficulty concentrating, and experienced recurring memories of violence.

Joshua: One time happened to me, like, this group of ten black, like African Americans, they came up to me, they pointed guns at me, they asked me for my money, and they said they were going to kill my family.

Stoltze: Fifteen-year-old Joshua lives in the West Adams district of South L.A. He's says he's had guns pulled on him at least three times.

Joshua: Sometimes, like when I'm dreaming, like I think about that. When I'm sleeping, like I dream about people pointing guns at me.

Wong: A person in that kind of mental state is not ready to learn, because they're focused on survival, and it's a different part of the brain that's operating than the frontal part of the brain, which is relaxed, open to listening to what the teacher is saying, thinking about what does this mean, taking in new information.

Stoltze: Dr. Kathy Sanders-Phillips teaches pediatrics at Howard University. She conducted one study that found African-American kids who'd experienced violence were up to three times more likely to use drugs or alcohol, or to engage in risky sex.

Kathy Sanders-Phillips: It's like, you know, soldiers in combat. If you're in a foxhole, why wouldn't you smoke? (chuckles) Why wouldn't you drink? Because your head can be blown off tomorrow.

Stoltze: Sanders-Phillips says some kids shut down emotionally; she calls them "flatliners." That's not all living in a violent neighborhood can do.

Sanders-Phillips: There's data that shows that kids growing up in communities like this show symptoms of more accelerated physiological functioning. In other words, if you bring these kids in, their heart rates are higher, their respiration is higher. They're showing symptoms of what we call fight or flight. They show these symptoms all the time, not just on occasion.

Peter: Just always watch your back, you know. Like, if there's any gangsters, just watch out. 'Cause it's not even a game no more, like, it's not even funny no more. It's real life.

Stoltze: Gang violence touched 15-year-old Peter's life last year.

Peter: Uh, yeah, last year my dad died. He got shot in the neck, and got shot in the legs. Outside my grandma's house. I just like, went into shock, or, I don't know what it's called. But I just started like thinking, like, wow, anyone could die at any time, you know.

Stoltze: A teacher noticed that Peter wasn't doing well in school and referred him to counseling.

Peter: I learned that if you need to talk to someone, you can talk to anybody, you know? Like anyone around you. It doesn't even have to be someone you know. If you just bring everything out, you'll feel better.

Stoltze: Marleen Wong of the L.A. school district concedes that most students with PTSD symptoms don't get help, because teachers and counselors don't recognize them. Wong says she needs more money to train staff, and to educate parents.

Wong: Once they realize it's not the kid being bad or lazy, they completely understand. I mean, it changes the entire relationship. They become much more supportive. Because they were being punitive with their child.

Stoltze: Wong suggests it's time to approach kids growing up in violent neighborhoods with compassion, and appropriate therapy.

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