Friday, March 8, 2013

Invisible Victims of PTSD

Thank you Alex Kotlowitz, author, neighbor, and Northwestern University’s Writer in Residence, for insisting in your New York Times article (The Price of Public Violence, 2/23/2013) that we expand the conversation about children and murder.

Thank you for insisting that in addition to mourning the victims, in addition to sending our deepest regrets to the families of the children, in addition to all our attempts to console by smothering schools with cards and teddy bears, that we speak about the less visible victims.

Kotlowitz reminds us that when “Hadiya Peddleton, the fifteen year old public school student and band majorette, who just a week earlier had preformed at president Obama’s inauguration, was killed on Jan. 29, she was standing under an awning in the park with a dozen friends.” Her treasured friends huddled under the awning on Jan. 29, and that day their world was also changed forever. 

The witnesses, the ones who were missed by the bullet, the ones who were spared, the ones who watched Hadiya Peddleton, all the Hadiya Pendeltons in other neighborhoods. The friends and family members of fourteen year old Dajae Coleman of Evanston, the children of Sandy Hook Elementary, all of them were witnesses and they are haunted by trauma. Kotlowitz reminds us that their sense of future is altered by what they experienced.

In 1994 the DSM-IV (the diagnostic manual) added one word to the criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder from the previous edition. The word was witness. It stated that one criteria for PTSD was that “the person has experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others.”

The children and families, who walk the streets where the murder of youth is frighteningly commonplace or for those who sleep in nicer bedrooms and once imagined it could never happen here, they may all be the hidden victims of PTSD. 

And thank you Alex Kotlowitz for also paying homage in your article in the New York Times to the impact on other witnesses, those of us on the front lines. The social workers, the child advocates, the schoolteachers, the first responders whose souls and bodies are also infected. We call it secondary trauma, vicarious trauma; we call it heartbreak. 

The witnesses multiply and so too do those who suffer from PTSD, this has become a hidden public health crisis.

Let us also remember that the solution may reside in the witnesses. Those who refuse to turn away; those who refuse to think it is somebody else’s problem, the enlightened witness: communities that refuse to be indifferent, who are committed to sustain their outrage when a child, anyone’s child, is murdered and those who are determined to seek solutions even when it would be easier to turn away. 

Director and Founder Womencare Counseling Center 

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