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Study exposes vicious cycle of community violence on youth

Chicago’s  steady rise in homicides is taking a toll on us in ways we probably don’t realize.

Maybe you stopped going out after dark.

Maybe you started avoiding certain neighborhoods.

Maybe you skipped your favorite outdoor concert, fearing mayhem might break out.

Try as you might, it is difficult to keep a positive attitude when people are getting shot on the Eisenhower expressway.

I know if I’m feeling stressed, it has to be far worse for the young people who are growing up in a toxic environment.

Now a study by researchers at Loyola University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Virginia confirms it.

“Examining the Pathologic Adaptation Model of Community Violence Exposure in Male Adolescents of Color” is the first study to test the theory of desensitization in a sample consisting entirely of males of color over a long period of time.

The study looked at the links between exposure to community violence, depressive symptoms and violent behavior among 285 African-American and Latino males in Chicago for five years, starting in the fifth or seventh grade.

Researchers found that as black and brown teens are exposed to more community violence, their symptoms of depression subside and violent behaviors increase.

I was shocked.

“We were surprised as well,” said Noni K. Gaylord-Harden, Ph.D., in a phone interview. The Loyola University associate professor was lead author of the study, which appears in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.

“The research on stress suggests the more stress you experience, the more depression. In this study, we found the opposite. There may be a desensitization to depression symptoms for young men who are exposed to a high level of community violence,” she said.

“While there may be an initial increase in depressive symptoms, those symptoms tend to decrease as the exposure to violence increases,” she said.

Community violence might cause young men to initially feel sad or worthless, but over time there is a “numbing” of those feelings, researchers found.

“We can’t assume a young man with low levels of depressive symptoms that this [community violence] hasn’t had an impact on him,” Gaylord-Harden said.

“Witnessing or being a victim of community violence multiple times throughout childhood and adolescence can be so traumatic that boys begin to cope by numbing negative emotions or they develop symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, one of which is emotional numbing,” she explained.

The “numbing” would explain a lot.

For instance, an “ongoing gang war” does not begin to explain why an adult gang member lured 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee into an alley and shot him multiple times.

Dwight Boone-Doty, 22, was charged with first-degree murder for the 2015 killing. To commit such a heinous act, the killer would have to be void of emotions.

Given the desensitization theory, there needs to be a change in the narrative about community violence. Instead of solely focusing on aggression and violence, we should also focus on the mental health of young black and brown men, Gaylord-Harden pointed out.

“There are very few resources available for young men of color exposed to trauma. We need trauma responsive services, interventions and care for these young men,” she said.

In urban communities, 74 percent of youth have witnessed a shooting, and 56 percent, a stabbing, and urban youth experience repeated exposure. Black and brown youth are twice as likely to witness a shooting or a stabbing as white youth in the same school system, according to recent studies.

Over the past year, Gaylord-Harden has met with the heads of a number of agencies with mentoring and after-school programs. They are concerned about the trauma these young people have experienced.

“They tell me we are not sure what to do with trauma. These young people need to have trauma response care available to them,” she said.







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