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PTSD: Collateral damage from the war zones

GLENN ELLIS | 6/6/2016, 8:13 a.m.
It has become trendy for media reports to compare neighborhoods plagued by gun violence to war zones. It’s time for ...

(George Curry Media) – It has become trendy for media reports to compare neighborhoods plagued by gun violence to war zones.

It’s time for us to take a “grownup” look at the violence that plagues all of our lives and our communities.

Violence claims two victims, the person or people victimized and the community, which experiences trauma, fear and stress. Each year in the United States, millions of residents fall victim to violent crime, which also causes fear and stress to neighbors, children, businesspeople and other community members.

The chances that young men who experience trauma in their neighborhood will end up in jail are astronomically high, studies show. Studies have also shown a high correlation between neighborhood disorder and physical abuse.

According to the National Association for Mental Illness, some 70 percent of youths in juvenile justice facilities suffer from mental health problems – part of a broader trend of prisons and jails becoming warehouses for the mentally ill. These youths are in many cases cut off from mental health care and from their communities and families; an untold number will be released back into society as hardened, unstable adults.

Aggravating the crisis in communities, state mental health programs lost more than $4 billion in funding from fiscal year 2009 to 2012 – a cost passed down to the hospitals and courtrooms that ultimately must absorb the burden.

Studies show that, overall, about 8 percent of Americans suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. But the rates appear to be much higher in communities – such as poor, largely African American pockets of Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia – where high rates of violent crime have persisted despite a national decline.

A growing number of programs treat post-traumatic stress disorder in war veterans. But far fewer treat Americans who suffer from the PTSD that comes with their ZIP code. And this kind of PTSD may be affecting even more people.

PTSD can directly hurt a person’s brain by messing with the amygdala – the part of the brain that triggers a chemical to release to help you decide between “fight or flight” in a threatening situation. If someone is exposed to prolonged, repetitive or extreme trauma, the amygdala stays in alert mode. And the neurons, the pathways to this part of the brain, lose their ability to recover.

A person’s memory becomes corrupted like a bad computer hard drive and it can hurt a person’s ability to separate out new experiences and determine whether they are safe or dangerous. The longer a person stays in the hyper-vigilant mode, the greater the chance of permanent damage. In a child, damage can be magnified and lead to problems like dissociative identity disorder.

For most people, untreated PTSD will not lead to violence. But “there’s a subgroup of people who are at risk, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, of reacting in a violent way or an aggressive way, that they might not have if they had had their PTSD treated,” according to Dr. Kerry Ressler, a medical investigator and psychiatrist, who studied this issue extensively.