Community Connections, Fall 2003
By Renée G. Benson, MA, C.S.W., Managing Director, MHANYS
We barely scratched
the surface of these topics, Violence and Trauma. We make no excuse and
offer no apology. We have gathered many resources and articles and have
had to leave many others out simply because of lack of space. We could
spend entire issues on any one form of violence: domestic violence, elder
abuse, school violence, gangs, sexual abuse and on and on…. These
subjects are vast partially because violence is part of our society's
roots, perhaps part of the human condition. The history of this country
shows the use of violence to establish and sustain our nation, states,
freedoms and much more. This is not to validate violence or condone it.
It is just a statement of fact. Violence is part of our society and it
is not directly related to mental illness. Media and others fail us when
they repeatedly make connections between mental illness and violence in
order to sensationalize headlines.
In ways unheard of a hundred years ago, we as a society have integrated
violence into our lives with technology. New advances have raised new
questions. How much violence is acceptable to expose our youth to? Is
any amount acceptable? Way back in 1982, the National Institute of Mental
Health released a ten-year follow-up report to the US Surgeon General's
Study of Televised Violence and Children, noting that " violence
on television does lead to aggressive behavior by children and teenagers
who watch the programs." This is based not on a single conclusive
study but evidence accumulated from hundreds of research projects.
Clinically we know children involved with frequent violence have altered
brain development. An infant is born with brain functions that control
involuntary life sustaining functions. But, the rest of the brain is not
yet organized. Events in a child's life prompt connections between brain
cells, forming circuits literally shaped by experience. The circuit gets
stronger the more often an experience is repeated. Constant violence creates
a fear circuit that comes to dominate the brain of very young victims,
changing their baseline resting state from calm to fear (based on a study
by Dr. Bruce Perry of 1000 children in Texas, article "Violence:
A Childhood Rite"). Other circuits remain underdeveloped resulting
in severe cases of children with less complex and physically smaller areas
in the brain for higher level thinking, some of which would inhibit aggressive
impulses, allowing a child to solve a problem in more mature ways of negotiation
rather than violence. Do not even think about what this could potentially
mean to large portions of children, perhaps generations, in war torn countries.
Some researchers believe that this is what predisposes children raised
in violence to live their whole lives enmeshed in violence either as victims
or as perpetrators.
The extra scary part of this is that younger children generally have difficulty
in discerning reality from fantasy, and that's why they have no problem
with pretend and imaginary games. Believing in the tooth fairy or Santa
is not a stretch for them. We do not know the neurological effects, if
any, which could occur as they constantly watch acts of violence on TV.
Could they accept them and become desensitized to the true horrors of
violence or perhaps even sustain neurological damage not yet identified
by research? We know that if a stranger asked to enter our home and to
speak with our children we would ask them to leave if they began to speak
in ways that offended us. Yet everyday we allow the TV and other electronic
devices to come into our homes and share violence with our youth. It is
an interesting message we pass on to our children. We hope this edition
offers you some tools and insights about what needs to be done.