Study probes impact of trauma on community

Recent scientific findings showing a link between urban violence and psychological problems have steered activists, academics and public officials in New Haven to support programs that address the aggregate effects of violence on the mental health of inner-city residents.

Several recent studies have illustrated that, in urban neighborhoods with prevalent crime and gang activity, the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder is on par with that of military veterans. The traumatic effects of violence are so potent that they can even impact community members who are not directly involved in individual incidents of crime.

Late last month, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy convened a round-table discussion to solicit input on potential solutions to the issue of gang violence in New Haven. In attendance was Yale Child Study Center researcher Steven Marans, who shed light on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress and similar disorders in urban environments, where men, women and children are repeatedly exposed to potential sources of mental trauma like violence, gang activity and abuse.

Marans directs a clinic at the Child Study Center that seeks to treat at-risk individuals early on in their lives and repeatedly throughout, before they have a chance to spiral down dangerous path involving guns, drugs and alcohol. His work falls in line with that of many others nationwide, who are attempting to zero in on potential solutions that may create a more stable lifestyle for inner-city residents.

“The outcomes of not recovering from trauma, which include PTSD and depressive and anxiety disorders, are also at the root of drug and alcohol abuse and inability to sustain healthy relationships,” Marans said. “As they get older, these outcomes can interfere with learning and academic achievement.”

Marans added that, in general, allowing these disorders to go untreated inhibits a patient’s ability to truly achieve independence and autonomy. This can result in their decision to join gangs, in which youth can find ways to cope with a negative mental state through promises of inclusion and belonging, he said.

Beyond the emotional toll sustained by those close to homicide and shooting victims, Marans said that other stressors include neglect or abuse at home.

“These are complex issues,” he said. “In some of these kids, [joining a gang] can serve as an antidote to feeling inadequate.”

Among the items called for by local activists seeking an answer to the decades-old problem of gang violence in New Haven is increased support for programs like the Child Study Center’s Childhood Violent Trauma Clinic.

Through the program, patients work with Yale clinicians trained to intervene in the post-traumatic stress cycle early and repeatedly enough to ward off any dire consequences, leveraging available family members to better reach patients and to foster positive relationships.

“A unique aspect of the clinic program is the focus on providing intervention early after a potentially traumatic event in an effort to prevent negative reactions,” a description on the clinic’s website reads. “Treatments provided through the Clinic include Trauma-Focused [cognitive behavior therapy], Parent-Child psychotherapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy and family therapies.”

Kerry Ressler, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, has also conducted extensive research into the prevalence of PTSD in the urban communities around Atlanta, where Emory is located.

For one of his studies called the “Grady Trauma Project,” Ressler and his team surveyed several thousand impoverished medical patients, most of whom were African-American, to determine how many had some kind of potentially traumatic event.

“About 90 percent had experienced severe trauma that would be sufficient for PTSD,” Ressler said. “About half the people we interviewed knew, personally, somebody who had been murdered, about two-thirds had been attacked, themselves.”

One of the major conclusions that Ressler drew from the data was that the rates of PTSD in this population were as high, if not higher, than in military service-related populations. In a follow-up study, he found a correlation between those suffering PTSD in this context and violent behavior down the road.

He added that, as a result, he believes an approach to the urban violence issue backed by informed medical research would yield encouraging results.

“If we could have a medical model approach to PTSD and inner-city violence, it may change the conversation,” Ressler said.

Sixty-seven percent of people exposed to mass violence have shown a tendency to eventually develop PTSD, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

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