Young, traumatized survivors of gun violence face significant shortage of mental health resources

Young, traumatized survivors of gun violence face significant shortage of mental health resources

When it comes to discussions on gun violence in the United States, repeated references are made to Chicago’s strict gun control laws or apparent failure thereof. The Windy City’s gun laws were reasonably strict even a decade ago, but successive court rulings have diluted many restrictive provisions. The significant increase in Chicago’s homicides, particularly in the South and West Sides (areas characterized by poverty, racial indifference and lack of resources) has been largely attributed to illegal guns.

Amid the clamor on gun laws and community violence, a critical aspect being overlooked is the mental health needs of traumatized survivors, especially youngsters. Despite Chicago’s spiraling gun violence and its associated outcomes, mental health services in the city and the state of Illinois are being significantly downsized. Between 2009 and 2012, the state’s mental health funding saw budget cuts of $113.7 million. Some school districts had glaring gaps in student support services. During the 2015-16 academic year, only 323 social workers were available for more than 392,000 students of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), highlighting a severe shortage of basic counseling services to traumatized students.

An unseen consequence of early life adversity, or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), is toxic stress which, in some cases, leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although ACEs largely pertain to individual experiences, factors, such as community violence, poverty, deep-rooted racism and oppression, also contribute to toxic stress. Youth exposed to violence involving highly lethal weapons show higher trauma symptoms. Exposure to community violence appears to result in a specific type of trauma, specifically associated with symptoms of PTSD, particularly among children and adolescents.

Correlation between socio-economic disparities, violence and trauma

While Chicago city’s proposed 2017 budget allocated 39 percent of its expenditure towards “Police”, the combined allocation for mental health services, substance abuse and violence prevention was included in “All Other Departments”, a residual category with a total share of 10 percent. This stark contrast highlights the apathy of elected officials to tackle the fundamental reasons for Chicago’s gun violence problem – the correlation between poverty, racism, violence and trauma. Deploying more policemen may not be the solution to this problem.

Gun violence is part of the larger issue of disparities faced by populations in specific neighborhoods not only in Chicago but also in other American cities. It was previously reported that socio-economic disparities in the District of Columbia (D.C.) primarily affected Black and Latino residents living in inner-city areas. Outreach efforts need to be made to provide education and employment opportunities to neglected youth residing in disadvantaged areas. Stress reactions in urban children, induced by socio-environmental factors, have been termed urban violence traumatic stress response syndrome (U-VTS).

PTSD in children and adolescents

According to the National Center for PTSD, symptoms of post-traumatic stress manifest differently in elementary school-aged children and adolescents/teens. School-aged children may exhibit post-traumatic play (literally exemplifying the trauma by compulsively repeating some of its aspects) or post-traumatic re-enactment (recreating the trauma’s behavioral aspects). Adolescents/teens may show a higher likelihood of traumatic re-enactment. Unlike adults or younger children, traumatized adolescents/teens have a higher likelihood of exhibiting aggressive or impulsive behavior, which increases their risk of being trapped in an indefinite trauma-violence cycle.

Although youth PTSD estimates vary, results from a previous nationally representative survey indicated that 5 percent adolescents met lifetime criteria for PTSD and 3.9 percent had current (past-month) PTSD. Past studies reported relatively high rates of shooting and stabbing incidents witnessed by elementary, middle and high school students. The type of incident and the severity of exposure determined the likelihood of developing PTSD.

Treatment for PTSD in children/adolescents

In some children, PTSD symptoms disappear over a period of time. However, if the condition is not treated, symptoms may linger for several years. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment for children with PTSD. Trauma-focused CBT (TF-CBT) has proven to be extremely effective in addressing psychological symptoms associated with childhood traumatic incidents. Other interventions include play therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and medications.

As one of the leading therapeutic boarding schools in the U.S., White River Academy helps boys aged between 12 and 17 years recover from mental disorders, including teen post-traumatic stress disorder. Call our 24/7 helpline or chat online with one of our experts to know about the best options for teen PTSD treatment.

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