The Effects of Untreated PTSD on Neighborhoods Plagued by Violence

Over the past 20 years, medical researchers have found new ways to quantify the effects of the relentless violence on America’s inner cities. They surveyed residents who had been exposed to violence in cities such as Detroit and Baltimore and noticed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): nightmares, obsessive thoughts, a constant sense of danger. In a series of federally funded studies in Atlanta, researchers interviewed more than 8,000 innercity residents, most of them African-American. Two thirds of respondents said they had been violently attacked at some point in their lives. Half knew someone who had been murdered. Of the women interviewed, a third had been sexually assaulted. Roughly 30 percent of respondents had had symptoms consistent with PTSD—a rate as high or higher than that of veterans of wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Experts are only now beginning to trace the effects of untreated PTSD on neighborhoods that are already struggling with unemployment, poverty and the devastating impact of the war on drugs. Women—who are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD, according to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—are more likely to show signs of anxiety and depression and to avoid places that remind them of the trauma. In children, PTSD symptoms can sometimes be misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Kids with PTSD may compulsively repeat some part of the trauma while playing games or drawing, have trouble in their relationships with family members, and struggle in school. “School districts are trying to educate kids whose brains are not working the way they should be working because of trauma,” says Marleen Wong, Ph.D., the former director of mental health services, crisis intervention, and suicide prevention for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Men with PTSD are more likely to have trouble controlling their anger, and to try to repress their trauma symptoms with alcohol or drugs.

— From “Black America’s Invisible Crisis,” a joint collaboration between Essence magazine and Propublica.

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Photo: Michael Le Roi