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Stress Disorder Seen in Some Youths Exposed to Violence

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New York

Like war veterans, children who are exposed to violence in their communities can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, says a group of Southern California psychologists.

They based their findings on data from four studies involving more than 1,600 children in grades 6-12 living in and around Los Angeles. They presented some of their early conclusions here last month at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

The studies involved at least three groups of students: public school students, students attending continuation schools for returning dropouts, and incarcerated teenagers.

Of the 6th-grade boys surveyed across three of the studies, for example, the researchers found that 8.8 percent responded yes when asked if they had ever been beaten or mugGED. Slightly more than 3 percent of the girls also reported being physically assaulted. Similarly, 8.8 percent of the boys and 6.6 percent of the girls said they had been at home at least once while their houses were being robbed.

Among one group of 626 7th and 8th graders of both sexes, 10 percent said they had been shot at. One-quarter of those junior high school students said they had seen a dead body somewhere other than a funeral home.

Exposure to Violence

In the high school sample, made up of 700 students in five schools, 43 percent reported having to dodge bullets at some time. More than half said they knew of someone who had been killed by an act of violence.

"In this room, how many of us has seen a dead body?" asked Regina McClure, a rESEArcher from the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology who took part in the project.

"It's really staggering exposure to violence that these kids have," she said.

Nonetheless, the researchers said, the percentages they found for students who had experienced violence were similar to those found in other, smaller studies of young people in large urban areas such as Chicago, Washington, and Baltimore.

As a result of having directly or indirectly experienced violence, the researchers said, 15 percent to 20 percent of the incarcerated youths and about 10 percent of the public school students met the full diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder even though they might never have been formally diagnosed.

The students suffered from intrusive memories of the violent event they had witnessed. They went to extremes to avoid reminders of the episode and, when they inadvertently came upon such reminders, their hearts beat faster or they were exaggeratedly startled, among other symptoms.

Moreover, the researchers found a "strong to moderate" link between the quantity of violence the children and teenagers had experienced and symptoms of the disorder. The greater the doses of violence, the greater or more pronounced their symptoms.

"And we're not seeing any differences in the relationship between high school students than we're seeing for 6th graders," said Jason Dana, a Pepperdine University researcher who took part in the project, which involved four universities.

Besides Fuller and Pepperdine, the other schools were the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California Medical School.

Beyond Definitions

Symptoms of the disorder were exacerbated in students who came from families in which there was a high degree of conflict, the researchers found.

Having come from a more cohesive family environment, on the other hand, seemed to buffer children somewhat from the effects of the violence they saw elsewhere.

David W. Foy, a Pepperdine University researcher who commented on the project, said its findings point up the inadequacy of formal psychological definitions of post-traumatic stress disorder, which was first identified in Vietnam War veterans who had returned home.

The formal diagnostic criteria for the disorder were first published in 1980.

"It's not 'post,"' Mr. Foy said. "This isn't like a war zone where you get airlifted out. This is where these kids live."

But some of the psychologists in the audience warned that some of the findings could be exaggerated because the study relied on self-reporting by students, some of whom may have embellished their gang experiences or were feeling nostalgic for the families they were separated from while they were in jail.

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