This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effect of violence and trauma on the community. Go to www.oaklandeffect.com for updates on his reporting.
The 10-year anniversary of 9/11 has reignited a national discussion about trauma. The nature of the attacks -- spectacular, visual and resulting in the deaths of thousands -- puts it in the category of "mass trauma."
According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, exposure to mass trauma in America is more prevalent than you might think. Fifteen percent of women and 19 percent of men reported exposure to natural disasters, which also is classed as mass trauma. Television and other types of media have made public acts of violence and destruction even more public.
Among those who directly experienced the attacks, either as first-responders or evacuees, the rates of trauma tended to increase over time, peaking five to six years after the event and not, as you might imagine, immediately after.
What the study also found is that, over time, single-episode traumatic events such as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, tend to diminish in their ability to create lasting post-traumatic stress disorder among the general population.
"In contrast, the burden of PTSD symptoms in the general population, who were for the most part indirectly exposed to the trauma through media, was found to be lower in severity and substantially diminished over time," the report found. "In New York City, the initial estimates of prevalence of probable PTSD declined from 7.5 percent at one month after the Sept. 11 attacks to 1.7 percent and 0.6 percent at four and six months, respectively, after the attacks."
Another study cited in the report found that people exposed "indirectly" to the attacks had comparatively similar rates of PTSD as young adults who had at some point been exposed to missile attacks in the Israeli-Gaza border areas.
From a high of 20 percent PTSD rates during the war, the figures dropped rather precipitously to 2 percent once the conflict had ended.
All of which, once again, reminds us about the uniquely destructive forces that are at work in neighborhoods across the Bay Area where, for one reason or another, exposure to repeated, constant and toxic levels of violence is unrelenting. Exposure to violence, whether in the form of terrorist attacks, hurricane-force winds or gunplay in the streets is traumatic. But the absence of those things can be equally healing.
The study concluded that "at one year after the attacks, indirect exposure alone was not associated with PTSD among individuals without a history of pre-Sept. 11 trauma, family psychiatric history, or both."
In many parts of Oakland, however, long-term family trauma, family psychiatric history, not to mention substance abuse and community violence, are the norm.
And not in single episode events like Sept. 11, but in such a sustained way that it often defines an entire world view.
"In the inner city, you have people witnessing a lot of traumatic events a lot of the time," says Chandra Ghosh Ippen, who helps direct the Trauma Child Research Project at UC San Francisco. "So kids are stranded with their experience, and no one's talking about it."
Several recent studies have found that the No. 1 precursor for the growth of human intelligence is a feeling of safety.Of course, safety can be temporarily disrupted, as it was in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.
But then it was restored. Not so in, say, East Oakland where, on any given day, it's not unreasonable to fear -- and the operative word here is fear -- that a gunman could come barreling out of nowhere and slay someone in broad daylight.
"It is a given that the environment is not safe," Ghosh Ippen said.
"So in that kind of world, how do kids focus? If there is constant danger, you have to allocate a certain amount of resources to being hypervigilant. How can you focus on school? On family? On your future? Your priorities have changed, and so has your biography."