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Treating PTSD could help urban youth enter job market

Chicago One Summer

The psychological tolls of poverty are legion. For those within its grasp, it alters every aspect of existence, from decreased health outcomes and mental illness, to increased risk of physical violence and a higher probability of being locked up in jail—it’s even been found that the chronic stress of growing up in poverty has impaired children’s brains chemistry.

We also know the vicious cycle of poverty is hard as hell to break out of, particularly when it comes to finding and keeping a job.

An interesting article by Alexis Stephens for NextCity addresses this last part head on, making a case for how treating PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) might plausibly solve urban Americas’ employment crisis.

Turning off the fight-or-flight response

As Stephens points out in her article, the ecological stressors in low-income, high-poverty neighborhoods are overwhelming. “In the early 1990s, psychologists proposed that the symptoms exhibited by youth growing up in urban settings affected by high levels of gun violence were similar to symptoms of PTSD.”

Journalist and author Ta-Nehesi Coates talked about growing up with this kind of hyper-awareness during an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross last July.

“When you walk through the street — I can hear my Dad telling me this right now — walk like you have some place to be, keep aware, keep your head on a swivel, make sure you're looking at everything,” Coates recalls.

Stephens point out in her article that this kind of hyper-awareness may be an important survival strategy for a teenager walking through a dangerous neighborhood on the daily trip home from school.

But in a stress-triggering workplace situation like a job interview or a performance review, the teen’s red-alert reflexes could become a major stumbling block to future success, Stephens writes.

In popular culture we have come to associate PTSD with veterans returning from war. Unfortunately, you don’t have to be a soldier to witness horrifying events in your regular life. Once that part of the brain has been damaged, a person may begin having difficulty discerning threatening situations from non-threatening ones.

A “trauma-informed” approach to improving job outcomes

A report released this year by the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University found that 18 percent of Chicago’s 16- to 24-year-old non-military residents are neither enrolled in school nor employed, a group commonly referred to as “disconnected youth.” Black youth have the highest rates of disconnection in the city, with 28 % of black 16- to 24-year-olds not working or attending school, followed by Hispanic youth at 16 % and non-Hispanic whites at 9 %.

Stephens notes in her article that another study by the CDC found that the effects of childhood trauma correlated to an increased ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score has further correlation with job problems, financial problems and absenteeism. In that study, 8.3 percent of people with no reported adverse childhood experiences had job problems compared to 18.5 percent of people who had four or more. The researchers argued that by identifying childhood markers of trauma early on, employers and healthcare providers could save some of the $44 billion a year spent on treating depression and the $28 billion a year spent on chronic back pain.

Robert Abramovitz is co-director of the National Center for Social Work Trauma Education and Workforce Development, which trains New York-area social work students in evidence-based trauma treatments for youth. Abramovitz has developed a curriculum of core concepts about childhood and adolescent trauma that is being implemented in more than 50 schools of social work around the country

“Usually when people talk about workforce development, they’re thinking about skills training, particularly for youth,” explains Abramovitz.

They're thinking about, How do we really get them to really succeed in school? How do we get them interested in going to college? Those are laudable goals, but if you aren't dealing with what happened to the kids, then you are missing the boat," says Abramovitz.

Giving students the support to “unlock employment”

Chicago One Summer Plus is one of a growing number of skills-based summer job programs sprouting across the country. The aim of the program is to help high school students and graduates better adapt to the workplace at a time when many young people lack practical career training.

The programs are also aimed at reversing a sharp decline in teen employment, from 58% in 1978 to 31.3% in 2014.

One Summer Chicago Plus is an experimental twist on One Summer Chicago. Designed in partnership with the University of Chicago Crime Lab and first piloted in 2012, “the program is an attempt to connect the dots between trauma, violence and employment,” writes NextCity’s Alexis Stephens.

The program connects youth at a higher risk for violence with a 25-hours-per-week summer job, a mentor, cognitive behavioral therapy and social skills building. Through rigorous evaluation by the Crime Lab, OSP serves as a lab for learning how city employment programs can better serve at-risk youth and ultimately, reduce violence among youth.

“We set up the program to be a randomized-control experiment where we recruited youth who were attending high schools in high-crime, high-poverty, high-unemployment communities and encouraged them to apply,” says Evelyn Diaz, who served as commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services.

As Stephen’s highlights in her piece, “the program’s curriculum in its first year included developing participants’ civic leadership skills and applying socio-emotional learning (SEL) techniques based on cognitive behavioral therapy principles."

Around 1,600 youth participated in that first year. One treatment group worked 25 hours a week with consistent access to an adult mentor, while another worked for 15 hours a week and spent the other 10 in SEL. The SEL curriculum included emotion and conflict management, social information processing, and goal setting. A control group was not offered employment through the program.

University of Pennsylvania Researchers found that 25 hours of minimum-wage employment each week during summer break decreased violence among Chicago teens by 43 percent over the course of 16 months, according to findings reported online Dec. 4 in the journal Science.

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