historical trauma

Let's call community violence what it is: Trauma

One in three black male children born in the United States is expected to go to jail or prison at some point in his lifetime…. I work in very poor communities and one of the hardest things for me to see is children who are clearly traumatized, so clearly disrupted by a level of trauma and violence that it makes it impossible for them to conform to the behavioral expectations of institutions that refuse to see that disability,” he said. While most of these children live in violent communities, go to violent schools, routinely see and experience acts of violence, “when they act violently, we call them violent offenders as if somehow they are the aberration,” he said. To change the narrative, the word “trauma” needs to be applied more frequently, he said. “If we don’t use that word, we don’t use all of these resources and skills and interventions we know and have that can help people suffering from trauma recover,” he said.
— Public interest lawyer and Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, JD

Changing the conversation about trauma means naming it--calling it what it is: living in violence is trauma, community violence, school violence, domestic violence. A basic definition of trauma is that it is an experience or event that overwhelms your capacities to depend upon or protect yourself. The hallmarks of trauma are feelings of terror, horror and helplessness. Community violence is understood to include direct personal exposure (happened to you), it also includes exposure through witnessing (saw it happen to someone else) and vicarious (know it happened to someone else). Community violence has been linked to PTSD in children and adolescents. This isn’t just a research statistic—this is a serious blow to the developmental process of  thousands of our young people. Trauma and PTSD affects our memory, our self-regulation, our relationships. It affects our ability to learn, to make decisions, to calm down, to seek out support. Trauma shatters trust and social fabrics—the two things most needed for healing and growth. While most people associate community violence with cities, there are many rural communities who also struggle with community violence and domestic violence.

 We need to change the conversation—change the narrative as Stevenson says—to trauma. Living everyday in a violent community, witnessing, experiencing, fearing, violence is repeated trauma. Trauma can be healed. Trauma can be understood. There are ways back from trauma—and the responses to trauma are universally human.

 Changing the conversation isn’t semantic. It is a radical act because if you acknowledge the trauma you will need to acknowledge the context. It is the complexity of this issue that makes it so hard to slow down and call it what it is: trauma. Trauma makes us feel the responsibility that we have. Trauma reminds us that this is a problem of people—people who are getting hurt. It will require us all to see the impact of historical trauma and how it still plays out, and it will require us to see how current structures are supporting the continuation of violence and trauma. It will require us to start where we are wherever violence is present—and that can feel like a daunting task. It is a daunting task because we can’t heal the trauma simply by healing one child at a time: we have to heal our communities—and we need to see that all communities who struggle with violence and trauma are OUR communities.  Changing the conversation is brave. Healing from trauma is brave.  This week --instead of saying 'violence'-- say 'trauma.' Let's change the conversation one word at a time and honor their struggle.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014