A Culture of Anxiety: PTSD in the Hood

Tanya Williams* lives in North Philly. Though school is out for the summer she doesn’t have a lot of friends to play with. The neighborhood is cluttered with trash. Many of the buildings are ravaged by fire, or abandoned.

Her old neighborhood was filled with children. Her eyes light up when she talks about it. It had a bright, sunny yard and children her own age. Tanya is ten years old. Her parents moved to the neighborhood she lives in now about three years ago. Several summers ago Tanya had a friend that lived in the apartment next door. Her parents were “very busy” so the young girl, Tanya’s age, looked after the younger siblings.

“It was very stressful. I was always anxious.” Tanya says. She describes the night the girl broke down and they took her away in an ambulance, strapped down. What she describes sounds very much like a nervous breakdown. Tanya does not know where her friend is now, but she heard the girl is living with relatives. She talks for a while about some of the other people who have lived in the neighborhood, including a “crazy” woman downstairs who would wander into their apartment, which doesn’t have a working lock. Though Tanya’s apartment is something like a constant state of emergency, with water dripping down into her room and giant holes where the sheet rock has rotted through, her parents are afraid to take any action because they cannot afford to move.

Such is the plight of millions of American children across the decaying urban ruins of once vibrant industrial centers. Homelessness, substandard housing and education, hunger and malnourishment, and a culture of chronic violence are creating a permanent state of emergency for many youth, who find it increasingly difficult to cope with rapidly worsening conditions.

A nearby neighbor, Andre Singer*, is a young adult who recently lost his minimum wage job at the Dollar Store. Andre is bored and restless but no longer hangs out at clubs, where a recent shooting killed a friend of his.

“It’s not worth it,” he says, sighing. When asked about connecting with people on social media networks, he just shrugs. Not only does he not have Internet access, but none of the friends he grew up with are online, and Web 3.0, with its focus on local scenes and personalized users, has passed his community by.

When violence breaks out in an affluent community, specialists are often called in to counsel the children and school is suspended, but at the schools in neighborhoods that Tanya and Andre live in, violence is an every day fact of life.

Though PTSD is often popularly thought of as a reaction to a single dramatic event, such as a rape, it is also caused by long-term exposure to chronic traumas, as is the case in combat or in extreme poverty. The poor nutrition faced in poverty makes the brain even more vulnerable to the ongoing, daily traumas.

These troubles are further compounded by the barriers that families face when attempting to access physical and mental health care, according to a report released recently by the American Psychological Association1.

As state and federal funding cuts chip away at support for these communities, taxpayers routinely assert that private business will step up to the plate. But business sees this as an issue for non-profits, especially in a weak economy. Non-profits, seeing a decline in donations and business partnerships, are increasingly demanding more paperwork to limit the number of applicants, and limiting their caseload to the most extreme emergencies.

Rachel Williams, Tanya’ mother, is quick to point out an obvious fact: “The solution is going to have to come from people, one way or another,” she said. “We can hope that the few children they save will know best how to help their communities down the line.”

For Tanya, all that matters this sweltering summer is finding an open public pool where she can find new friends.

*Names and circumstances have been changed to protect the identities of the children.


  1. Effects of Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness on Children and Youth. American Psychological Association. Retrieved June 27, 2012 from http://www.apa.org/pi/families/poverty.aspx

Posted by CJ Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor on June 29, 2012 at 05:00 AM

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