Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tortured Minds and the Death of Innocence

I don’t know (how you adjust to seeing people shot or killed). Some people say you never do. The first thing (you think) is, why not me? Of course, you know, someone could say, well, obviously, it wasn’t your time. But mentally, you kind of deal with things differently when you’ve been placed in certain circumstances. –Rapper T.I. (May 13th, 2010 appearance on Larry King Live).

It is widely defined as a psychiatric malady that manifests in the aftermath of overwhelming events, occurring as a consequence of threats to a person’s life and physical integrity, or of witnessing a person who was seriously harmed, or in the process of being seriously injured. Whether you use the descriptor of shell shock, battle fatigue, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the phenomenon is very real, and exacts a severe toll on the victims who emerge from the frontlines, internally battered and bruised, suffering from wounds that are invisible to the human eye.

It would be natural for the reader to assume that I am referring to any number of heroic warriors, returning home from the battlefield, waged on far off shores, but in reality, it is not necessary for us to leave the borders of our own country to see the debilitating effects of PTSD. We simply have to walk into almost any school that caters to our inner city children, and watch the victims stagger in, fresh from the warfront that also doubles as the streets of their neighborhoods. As a consequence of the war that rages in its streets, we have effectively produced a generation of “urban fighters”, and “children of violence”, who continue to live within the harsh brick and stone jungles of the modern day inner city.

Traumatization is endemic in the ghetto. From an early age, children living in the inner cities are frequently exposed to chronic or “ambient” stress that occur from living in poverty stricken neighborhoods, where there is a constant threat of crime, including: homicide, suicide, vandalism, graffiti, litter or trash, vacant housing, public drunkenness, burglary, illicit drug selling and use, robbery, and more. This lack of social control, and witness of injury, suffering, or death, results in dramatic ruptures in development, manifested in numbing detachment from others, profound loss of trust in the community, shredded internalized moral values and ethics of caring, a breakdown of inner and outer sense of security, and a self destructive disposition toward the world.

This concept of “nihilism” is especially disturbing, because it leaves children particularly vulnerable to related behavioral abnormalities, which includes dampened drive for academic pursuit and academic achievement. When reported by middle and high school teachers, the characteristics of misbehaving students directly coincide with symptoms consistent with PTSD:

Loss of interest in activities and life in general, feeling detached from others, emotional numbness, sense of a limited future, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, substance abuse, depression and hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and feelings, feeling alienated and alone, feelings of mistrust and betrayal.

Through my conversations and interactions with hundreds of school teachers, and thousands of children, it is apparent that the struggles of students in some of our worst schools are a result of children not possessing adequate psychological and emotional tools to effectively process and rationalize the atrocities that may be happening at home, or within their communities. In 2011, you will be hard pressed to meet a child of the ghetto who has not witnessed an extreme event, or experienced chronic exposure to aversive stimuli in the streets of their neighborhood. In particular, studies have examined the connection between ethnicity and PTSD, and have found that minorities report higher levels of related symptoms, that are a result of higher rates of poverty, and exposure to the stresses that typically accompany it. Children who “grow up rough” typically do not get to progress through the normal modalities of childhood, forced to adapt and navigate situations and scenarios that would frighten most mature mainline adults.

The problem of PTSD in our children is significant because they do not have the resources for treatment that they so desperately require. For example, if our soldiers come home from war and are diagnosed with PTSD, we (in the form of our government), treat the diagnosis as a sickness, and we dispatch significant resources for its treatment. We do not assume that the soldiers will be able to work out their traumatic condition on their own. We do the same for public servants such as firefighters and police officers, who may become burned out from the everyday stress of their jobs, setting up programs to keep them engaged, and active members of society. A similar in-school, and community wide “out-school”, approach and solution needs to be provided for our children, who may arguably experience more stressful environments, and see more violence, than some troops deployed overseas. By the failure of our institutions to treat PTSD and its effects in our inner city youth, we directly handicap them from reaching their full potential in the classroom and in life, as they struggle to carry burdens that no child should ever have to bear. Thankfully our soldiers have resources allocated to aid in their treatment of PTSD…our children deserve the same.

By C. Frank Igwe, PhD

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