Exposure to Violence and Trauma- Starting an Important Conversation

Categories: Mental health, PTSD, Trauma

August 6, 2015 — By Ashley Lewis

A few weeks ago my fellow summer intern Juliane made the very valid point of the need to destigmatize mental health services so as to ensure the physical and mental well-being of students in LAUSD. I began to reflect on her words while watching a short feature  on the experience of gang violence and the manifestation of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among youth in South Central Los Angeles. As I listened to the words of students from South Central high schools providing details of having seen their friends shot or brutally beaten I too felt the numbness they had so vividly described. For many of the youth in the video, the consistent murder of and violence against their friends and families had become normalized. They had seen this occurrence and experienced this trauma so much that one student said, “I still think its wrong…but after a while it just gets like regular.” I thought about this statement for a moment, and immediately began drawing connections between these same sentiments and the experience of police brutality.

On August 9th, it will have been one year since the tragic murder of Mike Brown–a young 18-year old on his way to college–at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson. In all honesty I have many emotions raging from sadness to anger to determination in reflecting on this upcoming day, but as I  enter the last half of my internship at The L.A. Trust I am growing more invested in the thoughts and feelings of youth in LAUSD. From the video linked above you will hear stories of these youths’ experiences with gang violence, and how they might not see nor understand that these traumas impact their physical and mental health. And while I am concerned with gang violence, there is something strong to be said about the persistent barrage of black and brown bodies, across all ages that have been seriously injured or murdered at the hands of the police. From Tamir Rice to Sandra Bland, we have seen video after video, and grotesque image after image of men, women, and children murdered at the hands of police. What are the mental health implications of these images for youth in LAUSD? In the midst of more easily identifiable health issues such as obesity and poor nutrition, how are we to better identify and serve the mental health needs of LAUSD students when these services are already under-appreciated and under-utilized? In what ways can we begin to address how issues of racism and police brutality have a psychological toll that can manifest itself physically? So many of these children live in heavily policed areas, so many have spoken of the gang violence and police brutality that plague their communities, and so many have spoken of the numbness they feel in relation to both of these occurrences.

It is this numbness that mental health and counseling professionals are beginning to view and address as a potential symptom of PTSD. If this continues,  we must then commit ourselves as public health professionals, as employees of LAUSD, and as friends and family members to helping and supporting our youth. I am not sure where we will start this process;, however I stand firm in the belief that we must start having conversations about mental health, about racism, about police brutality, about the health issues beyond the physical that impact our students.


ashleyAshley Lewis is a second year Master of Public Health Student at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. Her academic interests include community health and health communications and marketing. This summer Ashley is working with The L.A. Trust to develop resource guides for several wellness centers and develop communications strategies for the upcoming Tooth Fairy Convention and other projects.


Student Health = Student Success