07 May, 2018


Our Youth And PTSD: More Common Than You Think

There are some things that you never forget, like the sound of a car screeching down the street and hitting one of your neighbors or the bombastic sound of a gunshot and the sight of the blood and human damage that the bullet has done. You will remember the sight and smell of the burned flesh from the bullet mixed with the smoke from the gun. You will remember where you were and what you were doing when that one incident changed your life and it only takes a little thing like a scene on TV to trigger the PTSD that you contracted when the event initially took place. 

It’s a feeling of hypervigilance or always being on edge. There are times when you can’t concentrate, or you experience spans of time with constant aggression. There are times when you may exhibit incredibly reckless behavior and times when there are holes in your memory. There are moments of sudden intense anxiety and sleeplessness. These are all symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Sleep Disorder). 

Many people associate PTSD as something that you only get when you have been in the military or involved in a traumatic incident as a police officer. The truth is, it’s so much more than that. As many are discovering, you can get a NON-Combat form of PTSD based on experiences that you have in your home or neighborhoods. Witnessing domestic violence, experiencing or witnessing child abuse, or even watching a loved one suffer from a debilitating disease or condition are all circumstances that can trigger this debilitating condition. Living in communities riddled with violence leave us as spectators to visuals such as bloody fights and gun violence. Watching a bullet tear through flesh and the suffering that follows is not a scene that can easily be washed away from the memory. Listening to your mother and father scream and fight and you suddenly hear the thud of bodies hitting the walls and floor while being thrown around is not a sound that can easily be erased from the memory. Watching a disagreement between two kids afterschool turn into a fist fight and end in bloodshed is not a scene that we have not at least heard about. Watching it unfold can leave one with PTSD. Even something as unintentional like a car accident can cause symptoms of PTSD to surface depending on how it ended. The causes are medically stated as:

• directly experiencing the traumatic event 

• being a witness to a traumatic event 

• learning that the traumatic events occurred to a close family member or close friend; cases of actual or threatened death must have been violent or accidental

• experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic events

Recently, Ste’Vante Clark, the brother of an unarmed man killed in Sacramento, faced a barrage of criticism for his behavior after his brother died, during T.V. interviews and even at the funeral. It was announced that this was the 2nd brother that he has lost. Recently, Ste’Vante was arrested for threatening to kill or seriously injure someone. Many have come out in defense of this young man stating that he is suffering from PTSD. This very well may be true. The characteristics include irritable or aggressive behavior, reckless or self-destructive behavior, and hypervigilance. As tragic as losing his brothers are, an even worse scenario would be his family losing another family member to the criminal justice system because treatment was not sought and received. 

At the age of 4, I witnessed the murder of my mother’s boyfriend with his young son. 3 men busted into our quiet apartment, proceeded to shoot my mother in the back as she tried to protect him and left a bloody scene and dead body in the house with us. I have gone on to live a semi-productive, crime free life. In my early adulthood, I realized that I was incredibly angry, aggressive and hypervigilant. It would lead me to physical altercations, ferocious arguments, fits of tears and unhealthy habits. I didn’t like how most of this ended. I started recognizing my triggers and learning to navigate through life in a way that kept things from getting to the extreme stages. Feelings of anxiety is also a prominent symptom of PTSD. When I felt these attacks coming on, I developed breathing techniques and started to simply remove myself from atmospheres that brought them on. It was a process of acknowledging that something was wrong and resolving to not let it control my life. Although that may sound simple, it’s really not. The other young child that was with me when the murder happened, was not as lucky. He has been in prison since 2002. 

At the age of 13 and again in college, I was sexually assaulted while I slept. I woke up to things going on without my consent and against my will. In both instances, I escaped the situation as soon as I realized what was going on. For years, over a decade, the residue of the incident prevented me from sleeping well. There was fear and an edge of paranoia that prevented me from drifting off to sleep, even when I was tired and fatigued. Complete exhaustion was the only thing that would get me to sleep but bad dreams and internal unsettled emotions would quickly awaken me. This is classic PTSD. Reliving the trauma when exposed to anything that triggers the memory of the incident is common is this disorder. Triggers can be recognized by urges to avoid situation, scenes and even certain people that remind you of the incident. For me, sleep was a major avoidance. Avoiding sleep caused mood swings, lack of performance in school and work, and avoiding social situation where I might run into these predators (the causes of my disorder). 

In life, things happen that we have no control over. However, in the African American community, we have a unique opportunity to directly affect the mental health of our youth and improve the quality of life for our families.  One in 5 people is affected by mental illness. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. The key to decreasing these numbers is to start early and commit to taking better care of each other. We must decrease the rates of child abuse and neglect on our communities. Domestic violence, gun violence and child abuse are preventable. Kids that experience these things become teenagers and young adults with PTSD symptoms. Only about one-quarter of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40% of whites.  Not getting treatment and learning to manage PTSD can turn to depression, bipolar disorder or another personality disorder. Many times, this can lead to some type of conflict with the criminal justice system which then starts a whole new cycle of issues. PTSD is one of the more common psychiatric disorders in youth detention facilities, with the probability of PTSD being at least 1 in 10 detained youth (Abram et al., 2007). 

These are some of the most important statistics:

Child protection services in the U.S. get around three million reports each year. This involves 5.5 million children. Of the reported cases, there is proof of abuse in about 30%. From these cases, we have an idea how often different types of abuse occur:

• 65% neglect
• 18% physical abuse
• 10% sexual abuse
• 7% psychological (mental) abuse

Also, three to ten million children witness family violence each year. Around 40% to 60% of those cases involve child physical abuse. (Note: It is thought that two-thirds of child abuse cases are not reported.)

Studies show that about 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys go through at least one trauma. Of those children and teens who have had a trauma, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD. Rates of PTSD are higher for certain types of trauma survivors.

Common symptoms of NON-Combat PTSD: 

• Easily irritable or angry
• Reckless or self-destructive behavior (e.g. unprotected sex, reckless driving)
• Easily startled
• Problems with concentration
• Difficulties sleeping, including falling asleep and/or staying asleep
• A complete lapse in memory of or a feeling of blacking out for parts of the trauma.
• Perpetual negative expectations of the world • Continuous, misattributed blame of self or others about the traumatic event
• Persistent negative emotional state and/or the inability to experience positive emotions
• Loss of interest or participation in significant activities or activities once interested in
• Feelings of detachment from others, as well as feeling like others cannot relate or understand the trauma and emotional burden
• Unwanted, distressing memories of the traumatic event(s)
• Recurring trauma-related nightmares
• Flashbacks – involuntary and vivid re-experiencing of the traumatic experience(s)
• Intense emotional distress and/or noticeable physiological reactions to trauma reminders

We must take our children’s mental health care as serious as we take their physical health care. We start by making our homes as safe and functional as possible, keeping elements that could lead to traumatic circumstances away from our homes.  The drugs and violence can have no sanctuary in our homes. The abuse must be acknowledged and stopped. To ignore it and let it continue is welcoming long-term effects, not just on individuals, but on families and communities leading to generational dysfunction that leaves it even harder to break the cycle. You can make a difference. As a community, if we acknowledge our contribution to this preventable condition that effects almost 40% of our youth/young adults and work to reverse it, the results will be positive and dynamic for our communities as a whole for generations to come. 

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