The horrific violence between white nationalists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, 2017, has left the United States and many parts of the world deeply distressed. In the days following the violence, media has been flooded with disturbing images and news of the clashes, including the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old civil rights activist, and the gruesome attack on an African-American protestor by white supremacists. Although such an environment of hate and bigotry can trigger stress and impact even the strongest individual, children and teens are particularly vulnerable.
Psychologist Joy Harden Bradford explains that “visual memories are our most powerful memories.” Directly witnessing brutal violence or seeing it via the Internet and television can cause acute stress disorder. Symptoms of this condition include nightmares or recurring memories, mood disturbances, changes in diet, inattentiveness and irritability. Katrina Pinkney, a professional counselor, elaborates that repeated exposure to violence can result in complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by a “constant state of anxiety, stress, and fear.”
Continuous exposure to trauma induces the brain to produce higher levels of stress hormones which can cause impairments in concentration, focus, reasoning ability and memory. Past history of trauma or abuse worsens the risk of developing PTSD if brutality is witnessed or endured during violent protests. It becomes imperative for traumatized teens to take extremely good care of their mental health during troubled times.
Refocusing energies towards healing
Young people should not isolate themselves after violent events. Pinkney explains that talking to others and getting to know their perspective may help youngsters in better interpreting the events. Teachers and parents can play a crucial role in helping youth assess what has happened and come to terms with them. If teens took part in the counter-protests, initiating a discussion with co-protesters or friends who participated can be a source of positive support and help in reorientation. These activities should help teens refocus their energies towards healing and overcoming the trauma.
Ignoring basic needs can be extremely harmful. Being disturbed by hateful images and messages on social media is understandable, but that cannot override the body’s basic requirements of food and water. According to Pinkney, continuous online exposure to violent images can trigger feelings of despair, low self-esteem and lack of confidence. In the case of African-American teens, if symptoms of racial trauma are ignored or left untreated, they can result in the development of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. In such situations, withdrawing from the virtual world to take care of basic self-care needs is strongly recommended.
Experiential therapies, such as mindfulness or meditation can be very helpful in helping one overcome memories of traumatic events. According to Bradford, participating in grounding exercises such as walking on the beach barefoot can help teens in relating to the present moment and acknowledging that the trauma has faded away. She suggests that anything which allows individuals to engage their senses to focus on the present will be beneficial. Indulging in simple activities, such as reading a book, spending time with loved ones or learning a new activity can also help teens overcome psychological distress and experience positive emotions.
Seek help for PTSD and other mental health problems
Teens should neither ignore symptoms of persistent fear, anger or anxiety nor their basic needs. If therapy is a viable option, teens can look for licensed therapists, psychologists or psychiatrists who are located nearest to them. Young boys are often reluctant to open up about their struggles for the fear of being perceived as weak. May be they need a “safe space” to discuss their experiences and feel self-validated. Friends, family or a therapist should play a supportive role.
Without timely interventions, the after-effects of trauma can have a lasting impact on the mental health of children. As one of the leading therapeutic boarding schools for boys aged between 12 and 17, White River Academy can help in the treatment of mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress in children. Call our 24/7 helpline number or chat online with one of our experts to know more about evidence-based treatment for PTSD in teens.