From the military battlefields to our backyards: The impact of Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on our communities

In the wake of the increased neighborhood violence throughout the country over the past several months, my heart compelled me to dedicate a blog to discuss the correlation between neighborhood violence, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the residual effects it has on our youth, families and communities.

Most, if not all of us have experienced or witnessed some form of trauma.  Trauma is an experience that overwhelms our ability to experience a sense of control over ourselves and our environment, maintain connection to ourselves, others and make meaning of our experience.  Trauma impacts our relationships with ourselves and others, our safety, our understanding of humanity and our core beliefs.   Trauma can be caused by a variety of events including, but not limited to the untimely death of a loved one, neighborhood violence, domestic violence, chronic pain, natural disasters, physical, emotional and sexual abuse and military combat.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is an intense physical and emotional response to thoughts and reminders of the traumatic event that last for weeks or months after the occurrence.  Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, uncontrollable thoughts, uncontrollable shaking, heart palpitations, tension headaches and increased arousal (overly alert, easily startled, difficulty sleeping).

What is the difference between Trauma and PTSD?

Many people who encounter traumatic events have difficulty coping for a while but they do not have PTSD.  Time and good self-care allows the condition to improve.  However, if symptoms get worse, interfere with daily functioning, last for months or even years; you may have a diagnosis of PTSD.

What happens when we experience or witness a traumatic event?

Traumatic events impact our bodies, minds and relational networks.  It is also imperative to consider the age of the person at the time of the traumatic event.  Children, adolescents and adults may view traumatic events through different lenses.

Common responses to trauma include:

Fight: Examples include crying, clenched fists, feelings of anger rage, fight in eyes, grinding teeth, suicidal/homicidal ideations, nausea and knotted stomach

Flight: Restless leg/foot movement, anxiety, shallow breathing, sense of feeling trapped, tense, excessive exercise, sense of running in life and big darting eyes

Freeze/Dissociation: Sense of stiffness heaviness, feeling stuck in some part of body, feeling frozen, numb, pale, increased or decreased heart rate, holding breath, difficulty breathing and  sense of stiffness, “out of body experience,” and emotional numbness

Chronic Hyperarousal: A sense of always being under extreme attack; or a chronic sense of fight or flight.  The longer our fight or flight system stays active, the more draining; both physically and emotionally.  This is common in those who experienced or witnessed rape, natural disasters, military combat, beatings and/or neighborhood violence.

In the 21st century, Americans in violent neighborhoods are developing PTSD at rates similar to combat veterans.  The experience of neighborhood violence in our country can be compared to the loss of life on the battlefields in the military.  More recently, Harvard doctors have created the term “hood disease” to describe a complex from of PTSD threatening the well-being of inner-city youth.  I go into detail about PTSD in the community being redefined as the “hood disease” in my book “Vitamin C: The Healing Workbook, which can be found for purchase here.

It pains me as I think about the experiences of the youth, particularly the youth in the African American community.  Our youth are experiencing traumatic events in the form of neighborhood violence at alarming rates.  Most of the youth in the 21st century have consistently experienced the untimely death of friends and family members as a result of neighborhood violence.  Death is a difficult concept for children to understand.  As adults, oftentimes we struggle to manage our emotions and behaviors when experiencing the death of a loved one.  However, we are still charged with the challenging task of helping our youth process, manage and express their emotions, thoughts and behaviors during these trying times.  You may be questioning if I struggle to discuss death of a family member due to natural causes to my 9 year old; how in the world do I explain to my 9 year old who is beginning to conceptualize death that his or her friend was gunned down in a drive-by shooting?  Most of the traditional therapeutic models are not geared toward neighborhood violence or black-on black crimes.

How do we begin the healing?

As parents and caregivers, it is important to express feelings and emotions such as shock, disbelief, sadness, anger and guilt when dealing with our children.  Sharing these feelings helps in reducing children’s sense of isolation and reinforces caring and validation, even in times of grief.

Support system: Seek out the natural support of family and friends, seek local support groups.

Seek counseling:  Even in the 21st century, there is still a stigma attached to counseling, especially in the African American community.  I encourage you to seek the help of a counselor who has a good understanding of trauma.  If you or your children are experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms, please seek help.  You do not have to suffer alone in silence.

Get involved in the community: Be the change you want to see.  If you see the need for community outreach, counseling, community meetings; initiate the process.  There are people who watch things happen and there are people who make things happen.  Our youth are hurting and being taken away from us way too soon…time is of essence.

Although most of us, especially our youth are hurting from the acts of violence in neighborhoods across the country, our youth are resilient and all of us are survivors.  Parents, teachers, caregivers, counselors, community leaders, law enforcement are charged with banding together for the common goal for a safer, more stable and family oriented community.

Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you,” let’s begin to ask “What happened to you?!”

If you or anyone you know is in need of counseling services please contact HandinHand Counseling Services, LLC at 412-414-7782 or 412-607-4805.