Violence, compassion fatigue and the fear of being a victim

violenceWhat if there is something fundamental about empathy such that when we cannot act on it, we lose part of ourselves, perhaps even our humanity? What if we have unwittingly created a world in which we chip away at our capacity for empathy, and with it, one of the unique traits of humankind: the ability to love beyond kinship and species boundaries? Can we continually be exposed to violence and degradation, particularly through the media, and maintain empathy towards the suffering of others, or must we begin to shut down, feeling a little less compassion in exchange for a sense of safety, if not hope?

Compassion fatigue ails many of us, and results from viewing too many harrowing images of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (famine, war, death, and pestilence). In our era of 24/7 news coverage, repeatedly viewing disasters such as the attack on the World Trade Center or the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, can leave us hypervigilant, or emotionally numb, paranoid we might be similarly victimized, or too overwhelmed to entertain the possibility of catastrophe in our own lives.

The time period beginning with World War II, and extending to the present, has been depicted as an era of violence. Initiated by events such as Auschwitz, Dresden, and Hiroshima, and the technologies that made such destruction possible, this period is also distinguished from past eras by our passive witnessing of others’ suffering.

The effect of being inundated by images of violence has led to changes in our relationship with it. These images can fail to jar us as they once might have, or how we expect they should. The historian and literary

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Minnesota ACE survey finds more than half of state experienced one or more types of childhood adversity

Minnesota released the findings of a state-wide ACE survey today.  The results echo the CDC’s groundbreaking ACE Study. A telephone survey of 13,520 people in 2011 revealed that 55% had one or more types of adverse childhood experiences and, of those, more than half had experienced at least two or more.


Participants in the survey were asked whether they had experienced one or more of the following nine types of adversity: loss of a parent through separation or divore, watching a mother being abused, a family member in prison, a household member who’s an alcoholic or addicted to some other drug, a household member who’s diagnosed with depression or other mental illness; verbal, sexual and/or physical abuse.

The most common were:

  • Verbal abuse — 28 percent
  • Alcoholic or substance-abusing parent — 24 percent
  • Mental illness  — 17 percent
  • Physical abuse — 16 percent

According to a media release issued by the Minnesota Department of Health:

Minnesota’s results are consistent with those found by the initial ACE study and in other states. First, ACEs are common; second, ACEs frequently occur together, and third, higher ACE scores put a person more at risk for poorer health and well-being outcomes as an adult. For example, Minnesotans with more ACEs were more likely to rate their health as fair or poor, to have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, to report smoking and chronic drinking, to have been diagnosed with asthma, and to be obese. In

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Heavy childhood trauma ups risk of child/teen suicide 51x; so how does a community prevent it?

Dr. Linda Chamberlain lives in Alaska, where suicide rates are “typically double the national rate”, she says in lindathis blog post on the web site of the Scattergood Foundation. She’s the Thomas Scattergood Scholar on Child Behavioral Health this year. As founder of the Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project, she’s concerned about domestic violence and child abuse, which the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found are risk factors for suicide. She points out how ACEs increase the risk of suicide:

Early adverse childhood experiences [ACEs] dramatically increase the risk of suicidal behaviors.  ACEs have a strong, graded relationship to suicide attempts during childhood/adolescent and adulthood.  An ACE score of 7 or more increased the risk of suicide attempts 51-fold among children/adolescents and 30-fold among adults (Dube et al, 2001).  In fact, Dube and colleagues commented that their estimates of population attributable fractions for ACEs and suicide are “of an order of magnitude that is rarely observed in epidemiology and public health data.”  Nearly two-thirds (64%) of suicide attempts among adults were attributable to ACEs and 80% of suicide attempts during childhood/adolescence were attributed to ACEs.  Further, while system responses to family violence continue to place greater emphasis on physical forms of abuse, the strongest predictor of future suicide attempts in ACE research was emotional abuse.

Holy Toledo. These numbers are nothing but scary. And tragic.

One of the ways that communities can begin to prevent suicide is to understand adverse childhood

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Camden, NJ, teens, young people suffer under heavy load of trauma’s Kevin Shelly did an outstanding story about the effects of trauma and

 Quamir Houston talks about  the death of his sister Quanyrah, 16.

Quamir Houston talks about the death of his sister Quanyrah, 16.

violence on one of the nation’s poorest communities, Camden, NJ. It was accompanied by  a heart-wrenching video. From the story:

Repeated exposure to trauma in the poorest city in America carries very real and lasting health risks that span generations, according to medical experts.

Experts say communities can either support — or impede — the healing process from such trauma, depending on how they respond.

One way is to use a trauma-focused approach to individuals and the city as a whole, acknowledging the issue and publicly discussing what the consequences are. A good start, according to Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, would be to use a questionnaire developed through the Adverse Childhood Experience study, which is run by the federal government and Kaiser Permanente, an insurance company with medical services integrated into its offerings. Felitti pioneered the ACE study.

Father Jeff Putthoff, a founder of STOP, which stands for Stop Trauma on People, believes that needs to be a part of the discussion in the city.

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Memphis is taking baby steps into its future….really!

In Memphis and Shelby County, TN, an amazing movement is taking hold. Led by the non-profit Urban Child Institute, researchers, strategists, practitioners, parents, and community members are pouring considerable efforts into the health and well-being of children from conception to age three. As they say on their site’s “About” section: “We are dedicated to turning knowledge and research into measurable change.”

The video above lays out the basics of the Baby Small campaign that the organization launched in November.

Baby Small reminds us that the first years of life are a period of both extraordinary development and extraordinary opportunity. Babies’ brains develop in response to their environments. When they are surrounded by safety and love, for example, babies develop a stable sense of security and self-confidence. When these attributes develop in early childhood, they support a child’s readiness for kindergarten, and strengthen the foundation of that child’s success in school and life.

This organization has a wealth of scientific advisors and contributors, one of whom is Bill Day, an award-winning political cartoonist. He’s done some of the most poignant illustrations in defense of children that I’ve ever seen. You can take a look at them on the Urban Child Institute’s illustrations section.

Born to Be Raised

laurabookI am writing a book manuscript, Trauma Nation, which looks at how the United States is organized around the propagation of traumatic defenses. My work as a psychotherapist informs the project. I wonder what it would take to heal centuries of violence, oppression, complicated grief, and emotional neglect—much the way I am concerned for my clients. And yet this impulse to heal, social engineer, reform, etc., is symptomatic of what is often traumatizing about the US and the West in general–the continual need to address the impact of modernization and living in seemingly unnatural circumstances.

But what counts as natural? My personal gold standard has been our earliest ancestors. At times I look to the first hominids over five million years ago, when social emotions first developed. Other times I study the Upper Paleolithic some 40,000 years ago when protocultures began to flourish (and likely mirror neurons and dissociative defenses). And yet these comparisons have limitations. Such retrospective lenses get criticized for projecting values and biases, and sometimes say more about the person theorizing and her cultural milieu than the object of study.

I also value qualitative research that amplifies the unique voices of the people studied. This approach takes restraint and can be risky. It’s hard to be taken seriously as a researcher without overlaying some theory or interpretive frame. And yet there is something about unfiltered self-expression that resists objectification and can be more informative than the most well-thought theory. However, often the people most at risk of being “engineered” by social agendas show up as statistics, which although well-meaning (including protecting confidentiality), nevertheless can perpetrate what Michel Foucault called biopower: “techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.”

I recently read Susan Madden Lankford’s Born, Not Raised: Voices From Juvenile Hall, which uses photographs and questionnaires to give voice to an often objectified population, incarcerated youths. Lankford is a photographer, documentary filmmaker, activist, as well as an author. She and her daughter spent a year visiting youths at a juvenile hall in San Diego, California. Their initial question was How did these kids get into this mess?, and yet their approach gave voice to the youths’ dreams, fears, hurts, and longings as much as answer their initial question.

Lankford showed black and white photographs to the kids in the Hall—e.g., a photo of a woman looking out a window, a portrait of a middle-aged man, a 1920’s

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Digging deeper with more questions to prevent another Newtown, CT, massacre

Students on morning of shooting in Newtown, CT. Newtown Bee photo.

Sandy Hook Elementary students on morning of shooting in Newtown, CT. Newtown Bee photo.


Nearly a month has passed since the tragic school massacre in Newtown, CT. Most of the response has focused on controlling sales of assault weapons. This is a good thing. It can limit the lethality of attacks — automatic guns do more damage than knives. But it will do nothing to prevent violence.

To get at the turning points in the years-long chain of events that led a young, isolated, desperate man to kill his mother, 20 six- and seven-year-old children, six adults and then himself, we need to ask more questions. Questions about what happened to Adam Lanza when he was a child. Questions about his relationships with his mother, Nancy Lanza, and the rest of his immediate and extended family. Questions about whether the community that he grew up in was aware of his troubles and his troubled family, and if and how they helped.

The last 15 years of research about how adverse childhood experiences cause adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence is unequivocal. To understand what happened to Adam Lanza, we have to ask difficult questions. Dr. Vincent Felitti, one of the two principal investigators in the CDC’s groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, noted: “Most of us have been well-taught that it would be terribly rude to inquire, thus often allowing monstrous events to proceed unrecognized.”

Here are the questions, with short explanations of why each is important. At the end, a larger view of how asking these questions can help us prevent another Newtown, CT, massacre.

Was Adam actually diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist?

It has been reported that Adam Lanza had Asperger’s (now officially referred to as being on the autism spectrum), which by itself does not lead to violence. So, something else was going on. Did a trauma-informed professional do the diagnosis, i.e., someone

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