Doctors link childhood trauma, poverty with gun violence

CHICAGO – Trauma, poverty and racism create a toxic mixture rarely talked about when discussing urban violence. According to Drs. John Rich and Ted Corbin, witnessing or being a victim of violence, along with other adverse conditions while growing up, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Children are unable to manage PTSD without help, they told an audience of mostly medical students at the University of Illinois-Chicago, March 14. As part of UIC’s social justice initiative, Rich and Corbin spoke on the links between violence and trauma. The doctors advocate for a public health approach to stem the epidemic and prevent gun violence.

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Corbin is assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Rich is professor and chair of Health Management and Policy at Drexel’s School of Public Health. Rich and Corbin, along with Dr. Sandy Bloom, lead the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. The center’s mission is to “promote health, nonviolence and social justice through trauma-informed practice, research, professional development, and advocacy for policy change.”


While most of their research on trauma and violence focuses on Philadelphia, their conclusions apply to other urban centers. The level of violence in Philadelphia (and other cities like Chicago) can be compared to the war in Afghanistan, they said. Their data from Philadelphia from the last decade shows more deaths there than of soldiers in Afghanistan.

Chicago hit a grim milestone last year with 275 murders, exceeding the number of soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan during the same time period. Chicago has become the national spotlight for gun violence, especially affecting African American teenagers and children. The recent deaths of 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins and teenager Hadiya Pendleton both from gun shot wounds shocked Chicago and the nation. Pendleton was murdered while hanging out with a group of friends in the park just weeks after performing at an inauguration event for President Obama. Watkins father, the apparent target of the shooting, was changing Jonylah’s diaper in a car when a gunman opened fire in the middle of the afternoon.

Every weekend someone dies in Chicago from gun violence. From January 2007 to March 2013, more than 2, 330 people were killed by gun violence. Sixty have died this year alone.

The doctors said violence has two victims – one is the perpetrator. “Homicide is only the tip of the iceberg,” Corbin said. Those that commit acts of violence are often victims of abuse and violence as children. Some experienced or witnessed – prior to becoming an adult – sexual, emotional or physical abuse. Children are not equipped to handle such stress without intervention.

The doctors emphasized that those who experience or perpetrate violence – children and adults – must have access to trauma treatment.

For the African American community, there is a correlation between poverty, racism and violence, the doctors said. They described the conditions as dehumanizing.

One person the doctors interviewed while doing research, Roy Martin, described his conditions growing up. “Your normal is not my normal,” he said.

Martin said he learned that if you couldn’t be respected then at least you could be feared. But with intervention and support, Martin – a former felon – turned his life around and was able to work for former Sen. John Kerry.

Human dignity needs to be maintained, they said, even of the person that committed a violent crime.

Photo: Healing Hurt People staff and clients participate in the July 2010 Merrell Down and Dirty Mud Run event, which featured 5K and 10K off-road courses filled with military-style obstacles, cargo climbs, and, of course, mud — lots of mud! Participants raced alongside local military personnel, public safety officers and police academy trainees, all while supporting our troops through Operation Gratitude. (via Healing Hurt People/Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice)