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Stress is a very broad term and can be brought on by many different circumstances in many different situations. According to the Longman Dictionary of American English, stress is defined as continuous feelings of worry caused by difficulties in your life that prevent you from relaxing; physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension. Human beings are tremendously adaptable creatures, and our bodies have many ways of responding to difficult and or threatening situations (Alvarez & Bachman, 2008). This flexibility allows human beings to survive in a sometimes dangerous, complex and often changing world (Alvarez & Bachman, 2008). Witnessing community violence, and poverty, particularly in lower socioeconomic urban communities is high among children (Campbell & Schwarz, 1996; Schubiner, Scott, &Tzelepis, 1993). The majority of urban youth has witnessed violent events, and among older children, a third or more report being a direct victim (Osofsky, Wewers, Hann, & Fick, 1993; Sheehan, DiCara, LeBaily, & Christoffel, 1997). This type of prolonged stress has many adverse affects on the body and mind because it puts a tremendous strain on the various systems and organs (Alvarez & Bachman, 2008). Our bodies can handle stress in the short term, but in the long run it wears out the body’s ability to react (Alvarez & Bachman, 2008). So what does this mean for the effects of stress on violence?
Community violence exposure is a major cause of childhood morbidity in urban U.S. communities (Wright, 2006). Children who are victims of or witnesses to violence in their communities have more behavioral problems, depressive symptoms, aggression problems and are more likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Freeman, Mokros,&Poznanski, 1993; Schwab-Stone et al., 1999). According to Niehoff (2008) it is not because of the deterioration in moral character but because of a steady deterioration in the ability to cope. There is sufficient longitudinal research indicating that children who have been victimized by violence over time are more likely to show increasingly violent behavior leading to juvenile delinquency (Zingraff, Leiter, Myers, & Johnson, 1993). Widom and Maxfield (1996) have shown that childhood victimization increased the risk for adolescent delinquency and almost doubles the child’s chance of having a juvenile record when compared to children in the population at large. Furthermore, they found that children who have been abused and neglected are much more likely to have the following: an earlier age of onset of official criminal behavior, commit more offenses than control groups, are more likely to become recidivists, and have a higher chance of becoming chronic offenders (Widom and Maxfield, 1996). Niehoff (2008) states that when humans are forced to operate at a capacity which they were never designed for, the reciprocal processes that regulate neurotransmission and neuroendocrine function during stress overshoot, break down, or oscillate frenetically. She also states that this is why bad neighborhoods, bad homes, and bad relationships breed violence (Niehoff, 2008). When a person is constantly exposed to stressful events, it is as if they become unable to deal with the constant stress and “bad” in their lives.
According to Alvarez and Bachman (2008), minority communities and the poor are highly effected by violence not only because of economic deprivation, but also by discrimination and racism. Low-income neighborhoods and communities suffer from a disproportionate amount of social problems that often include high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence, and street crime (Alvarez & Bachman, 2008). Individuals in these communities also suffer from the daily strains and indignities of living with few resources within a society which largely ignores them (Alvarez & Bachman, 2008). They constantly have to be on their guard and potentially react to dangerous situations. It is their day to day life, the chronic stress on the individuals and the groups which leads to higher rates of violence (Alvarez & Bachman, 2008).
In my opinion, it is virtually impossible to eliminate stress completely from any given person’s life let alone an entire community. But, that does not mean that we cannot reduce it. For instance, if economic deprivation in a community contributes to the amount of violence in that community, there are simple solutions to that problem. There should be more funding poured into poverish communities and programs should be developed in order to help prevent violence. Programs should be developed that target young children who have been victims of violence and poverty or for parents who have young children that have been victims of violence or poverty. The programs should be aimed at prevention by counseling and educateing the target population in ways to change their lives and better cope with the daily stressors of their lives. Community servants, such as social workers and police officers, should be provided with more training to become aware, sensitive and more equipped to recognize stressed individual who are vulnerable to violence in an effort to prevent violence.
Real Life Example
In an article by Alan Mozes (2010) from the HealthDay newspaper entitled Child Abuse Head Injuries Rise as Economy Falls demonstrates how violence against children increases as stress levels rise. In a study conducted by Berger (2010), an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, on four urban cities, found that since the economic downfall in 2007 shake baby head syndrome has nearly doubled. Berger (2010) states that now we know that poverty and stress are clearly related to child abuse. Burger (2010) also says that during times of economic hardship one of the things that's hardest hit are the social services that are most needed to prevent child abuse.
According to Berger (2010), the recession was considered to have begun on Dec. 1, 2007, and continued through the end of the study period on Dec. 31, 2009. Throughout the study period, Berger (2010) and her team recorded 511 cases of trauma. The average age of these cases was a little over 9 months, although patients ranged from as young as 9 days old to 6.5 years old. Overall, 16 percent of the children died from their injuries. The authors found that the changing economic situation did indeed appear to be associated with a shifting rate of abusive head trauma (Berger, 2010). According to Berger (2010), the average number of such cases per month had been just a little over five, that number went up to more than nine cases per month once the economy started to fall.
The findings by Berger (2010) and her colleagues is an excellent example of how stress can contribute to violence. As mentioned before by Niehoff (2008) when humans are forced to operate at a capacity which they were never designed for, the stress breaks them down, and they are not able to function properly. It is not that people under stress become morally bad, it is just that they are unable to cope with chronic stress in their lives and it results in violence. Berger (2010) also states that during a time of economic downfall the first programs that suffer are government funded programs, such as social services and other programs which are used to help the underprivileged. I feel that this is a big problem because instead of having more programs to help reduce stress and educate people on how to deal with the increased stress in their lives, programs are being taken away. These individuals become increasingly stressed because they must feel like society is ignoring them when they need help the most.
On April 20, 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who went on a shooting rampage and killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher, injured 23 others and then turned their guns on themselves ( Chen, 2009). The tragic story soon became a media frenzy about how two teenage boys were drive to madness by being out casted and bullied in school. It would have been a classic case of how stress can lead to violence, except that the initial media story and hype was untrue. According to Cullen (2009), in his book Columbine, he explains that the killers weren't part of the Trench Coat Mafia, they weren't bullied by other students and that they didn't target popular jocks, African-Americans or any other group. A school shooting wasn't their initial intent, Cullen (2009) said. They wanted to bomb their school in an attack they hoped would make them more infamous than Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Harris was a psychopath and Klebold battled depression. The killers were mentally ill. It was not stress that pushed them over the edge, it was that they were mentally ill and they did not have the proper people around them to recognize that they were troubled.
Although stress is also a factor for a mentally ill individual, it is not the stress that caused the person to become mentally ill. Even though stress, in my opinion, is not relevant in the Columbine shootings, what is similar is the way that it could have possibly been prevented. I had mentioned before that I believe a problem is that public offices, in this case school psychologists, can and should receive more funding for better training. They should be better capable and more sensitive to the needs of the people they are there to help. There are always signs, but there has to be qualified people to be able to recognize those sometimes hidden signs.
Chen S. (2009). Debunking the myths of Columbine, 10 years later. Retrieved April 1, 2010 from http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/04/20/columbine.myths/
Longman A.W. (1997). Longman Dictionary of American English. White Plains, N Y: Morton Word Processing
Widom, C.S., & Maxfield, M.G. (1996). A prospective examination of risk for violence among abused and neglected children. In C.F. Ferris & T. Grisso (Eds.), Understanding aggressive behavior in children (pp. 224–237). New York, NY: Academy of Sciences.
Zingraff, M.T., Leiter, J., Myers, K.A. & Johnson, M.C.. (1993). Child maltreatment and youthful problem behavior. Criminology, 31, 173–202.
Mozes A. (2010), HealthDay Reporter. Retrieved April 05, 2010 from http://www.businessweek.com/lifestyle/content/healthday
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