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Living in a violent neighborhood can give you PTSD, study suggests

Apr 3, 2017

Our experiences shape who we are.

Here at State of Opportunity, we've talked extensively about how Adverse Childhood Experiences—or ACEs—can affect a child throughout their lives. But new research suggests traumatic experiences in adulthood can be just as harmful.

Living in an environment of poverty and violence can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in African-American women with depressive symptoms, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.

Researchers conducted the study in the Oakland neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The study followed women who had mild to severe depressive symptoms, according to the Chicago Tribune. The researchers found 29% of the 72 African-American participants had PTSD. An additional 7% of women exhibited a large number of symptoms that are part of a PTSD diagnosis.

Dr. Michael Malone is a physician in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. He told the Chicago Tribune:

Sometimes the PTSD is missed or a lot of times, it could be the patient not being forthcoming with past trauma or past physical abuse, and it's something that is definitely out there. Unfortunately in the inner city where we are, that's something that needs to be addressed more, and the study was right on. As I'm reading through it, I'm thinking of different patients in my head that we've diagnosed.

A common thread between the women in the study was that they had all experienced traumatic events like domestic violence, car accidents or, in some cases, even witnessing their own child being shot. Research has shown that residents in impoverished and disadvantaged neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to violence. Black families, even when they are not poor themselves, are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty.

And while mental illness is actually more likely to occur in black communities, African-Americans are less likely to be treated. As I wrote previously:

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Services, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress, such as major depressionsuicidePTSD, and anxiety than non-Hispanic whites. Disproportionate rates of poverty, joblessness, and exposure to violence are some factors. Yet a study by the American Psychological Association found that young adult blacks, especially those with higher levels of education, are significantly less likely to seek mental health services than their white counterparts.

Sometimes it's a lack of information and misunderstanding about mental health that prevents people from seeking treatment. Other times, it's an over-reliance on faith, spirituality, and community. Many low-income communities also face shortages of mental health professionals, adding to the difficulty African-Americans face in getting help.  

For people who have witnessed violent events in their neighborhoods, the need for mental health care is especially pressing. Nortasha Stingley is a patient of Malone who lost her 19-year-old daughter to gun violence. She told the Chicago Tribune:

We have to figure out ways that we can get it out better and get help because it's like a cancer. When you hold things in, cancer, what does it do? It eats you from the inside out.

While the study is limited, the findings are consistent with those of previous studies linking poverty, violence and PTSD—like this one, this one and this one.

And the study's authors say these findings highlight the need to make mental health resources and crime victim services more readily and widely available in low-income neighborhoods.