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In War and on City Streets, the Similar Threat of PTSD

The shooting death of a former Navy SEAL has sparked a debate about the damaging effects of post traumatic stress disorder among veterans. Largely left out of the discussion, however, are the young men and women living in urban areas with high rates of violent crime.

Soldiers fighting in Afghanistan Credit U.S. Army

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The shooting death of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle earlier this month has sparked a debate about the damaging effects of post traumatic stress disorder among veterans. Largely left out of the discussion, however, are the young men and women living in urban areas with high rates of violent crime — people who are more likely to experience PTSD than even soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kyle, an advocate for veteran’s mental health issues and author of the book American Sniper, was killed at a shooting range in Erath County, Texas on February 2. According to police reports, Kyle had taken the suspect, Iraq War veteran Eddie Ray Routh, to the range as a part of his recovery from a possible case of PTSD. (Since retiring from the Navy in 2009, Kyle had worked with veterans to help them cope with the psychological and emotional impacts of war.)

The National Center for PTSD defines post traumatic stress disorder as “a mental health problem that can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, assault, or disaster.” Any person who has undergone such an experience is at risk of developing PTSD.

For young people living in high-crime neighborhoods, the rate of exposure to violence is comparable to that of soldiers in war zones. The San Fransico Chronicle reported in 2007 on a Stanford University study finding that “[a]s many as one-third of children living in our country’s violent urban neighborhoods have PTSD, nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq.”

“Trauma can cause your body’s fight or flight system,” said John Rich, director of the Philadelphia-based trauma therapy program Healing Hurt People, in a 2010 radio interview. “In some people who have suffered trauma, it looks like that system just doesn’t quite completely turn off.”

The National Center for PTSD estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will experience PTSD. Between 7 and 8 percent of Americans will have PTSD at some point in their lives, and an estimated 5.2 million adults have PTSD during any given year.

A study by the National Urban League Policy Institute found that “Forty-Seven percent of low-income African-American youth have witnessed a murder and 56 percent have witnessed a stabbing.” In a report for the Forum on Public Policy, researcher Portia D. Rawles writes, “There is a substantial body of literature, which clearly demonstrates that children and adolescents living in poor urban areas experience greater incidences of violence, whether as witnesses or victims.”

Beyond having common experiences, both war veterans and youth exposed to violence exhibit similar behaviors when suffering from PTSD.

“Like combat veterans”, said Rich, “These young people are jumpy, they feel unsafe. They think, ‘I feel unsafe, therefore I must be unsafe.‘”

But most of the national-level talk about PTSD tends to focus on war veterans.

“When you compare a young person who has grown up in an urban environment… there is not a whole lot of empathy as with someone who is going off to serve our country,” said Ted Corbin, medical director of Healing Hurt People, in the same radio interview.

In the U.S., children living in poor urban neighbors are at a high risk of exposure to violence. “In 2008, 2,947 children and teens died from guns in the United States and 2,793 died in 2009 for a total of 5,740,” according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Meanwhile, 34,387 children and teens suffered nonfatal gun injuries in 2008 and 2009.

In comparison, a combined total of 935 soldiers died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars during the same time period.

The common thread between combat in war and violence on city streets hasn’t gone completely ignored in the news media. A January episode of the PRI program This American Life featured interviews with an Afghan War vet and a North Philadelphia resident, demonstrating the similarities in their responses to trauma and violence.

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