Exposure to Community Violence and Mental Health Outcomes in Adolescents

What is the impact of exposure to community violence on adolescents’ mental health?

It has been well researched that urban adolescents are also exposed to high amounts of community violence, which can affect their overall and mental well-being. Over 85% report witnessing some type of violence in their lifetime, and over 60% have been victims of violent acts. With such high levels of violence exposure, the youth living in these communities have lived lives that are characterized by repeated violence that is present at school, at home and out in the neighborhood. It also speaks to the fact that violence exposure is a common aspect of growing up. 

This is problematic because youth who are exposed to violence are susceptible to developing symptoms of aggression, depression, anxiety, and substance use. Understanding how the mental health outcomes affect those exposed to community violence can improve treatment and support for them.

The impact of the relationship between exposure to community violence and mental health outcomes can be great. For example, struggling with mental health can lead to poorer academic performance, which in turn can affect graduation rates and opportunities to achieve success as an adult. Previous studies have found a significant, positive correlation between exposure and

externalizing symptoms (such as aggression or rule-breaking), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and internalizing behaviors (such as depression or anxiety). It has been reported that the strengths of correlations between exposure to community violence and depressive symptoms range from weak to moderate. The most consistent findings in respect to mental health are the findings related to externalizing symptoms and PTSD

May has been recognized as mental health awareness month by Mental Health America since 1949. It is aimed at raising awareness about mental health issues that people face and trying to make mental health an essential part of overall health and well-being. There is still stigma placed on mental health issues, and more awareness is needed on the reality of the issues, including the struggles that those suffering face. Part of the awareness raising should be in the scholarship that is produced about the relationship between exposure to community violence and mental health outcomes in adolescents. 

Based on all of the previous literature listed above, what can be learned? For one, it is crucial to understand adolescent’s perspective and perceptions of their personal experiences. Many times, decisions are made about adolescent life without their input, so it is important to include their thoughts in decision making. Furthermore, they are the future, and keeping them safe and ensuring their well-being is also important. Therefore, it would be useful to produce more scholarship that continues to try to find more consistent relationships between community violence exposure and mental health outcomes. Researchers should make this a priority within the field of adolescent research,especially since the prevalence rates are significantly higher for youth and adolescents living in urban settings. Additionally, I would like to offer up a call to action that we need to start doing more to help those who have witnessed violence and do actionable things in the community to reduce the levels of violence. We can help parents, teachers, and any others who work with youth to recognize symptoms of PTSD and other externalizing problems. It can be done through offering interactive trainings. In turn, adults will have better ways to discuss these issues with teens. More discussion can also help reduce stigma, which will help communities heal. 

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Kendall Johnson is currently studying to obtain her PhD in Social Work at Boston University under the mentorship of Judith Scott (MSW,MPP,PhD). Her research seeks to understand the effects of trauma and community violence, especially homicide, on the Black families’ and communities’ mental health, as well as the supports they utilize in response to traumatic loss and violent events