Cook: Traumatic stress is changing the brains of children in Chattanooga

Cook: Traumatic stress is changing the brains of children in Chattanooga

August 14th, 2016 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Tiara Wynn, niece of Marie McCallie, stares from the window of her home near the site of a recent shooting on Wednesday, April 20, 2016, after a wave of gang violence in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

I keep thinking of that 5-year-old, the one who dialed 911 after witnessing his mother and father shot to death by a intruder. Do you remember that murderous story? From January?

Think of that boy's heart, drowning now in grief, shock and rage.

Now think of his brain.

He's 5, maybe 6, now. Kindergarten soon. When he begins school, how will the memory of such trauma affect him? The way he concentrates, or can't? His ability to focus and listen? His performance on Test Day?

The boy is not alone.

So many of us — children to adults — have suffered trauma. The millions of Americans who suffered child abuse. Those who witnessed their father beating their mother. Those who endured an alcoholic relative. You do not have to travel to refugee camps or war zones to find trauma; it is here in Chattanooga, hidden in plain sight.

It's believed that child abuse alone is the dark culprit behind so many of our worst, most-damaging adult behaviors: alcoholism, depression, suicide, drug use and domestic violence.

"Trauma is now our most urgent public health issue," writes Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass.

Earlier this summer, I read van der Kolk's "The Body Keeps the Score," a powerful and humane examination of the ways our bodies and minds retain and react to trauma — defined as pain "unbearable and intolerable" — years, even decades, later.

The residue of trauma is stored in our brains where it upends, disrupts and upsets our neurological peace. (One section of his book is called "This is Your Brain on Trauma.") Rape victims remain hyperalert to threats and have immense difficulty relaxing. War veterans are unable to form intimate relationships, and crave dangerous, high-risk situations in order to feel alive. Gang members have trouble regulating emotions, and suffer hallucinations. In victims of child abuse, stress hormones are released like too much water from a dam, grooving a neurological and physiological pattern of response that feels as if the damage is being re-experienced.

"Veterans may react to the slightest cue — like hitting a bump in the road or seeing a kid playing in the street — as if they were in a war zone," van der Kolk writes.

Many of our schoolchildren live in war zones also, making trauma the most important part of education we don't talk about.

What if all our angst over failing schools and low test scores actually had very little to do with education?

And everything to do with the neurological consequences of trauma and street violence?

"Present traumatic stress disorder," said Paul Smith, former principal at The Howard School and once leader of the city's Violence Reduction Initiative.

Remember that drive-by shooting at the Alton Park bus stop?

How well do you think those children did in school that day? That month? That year? We would never demand ACT scores from veterans returning from Fallujah, yet we routinely make absurd academic demands of students whose brains have shut down through no fault of their own.

Teachers and social workers I know speak of certain children's inability to articulate even the most basic of feelings, as if they are numb — van der Kolk says this is common, as is:

* Physical immobility and loss of curiosity.

* Responding to minor irritations with tremendous fear and anger.

* Mood swings, loss of creativity, increase in aggression and anxiety.

"We now know that their behaviors are not the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character," he writes. "They are caused by actual changes in the brain."

Thankfully, we can heal; van der Kolk devotes nearly half his book to overcoming trauma: cognitive behavioral therapy, to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, to theater, arts and dance. Local social workers, educators and physicians continue to push for a more holistic view of education. Newly elected school board members could treat trauma as an educational issue, not just a medical one.

Earlier this spring, Richmont Graduate University on McCallie Avenue opened a Trauma Center, the first of its kind in 50 miles. The center practices a wraparound, spiritual model of treating trauma, and deserves more recognition than I can give here.

"Social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma," van der Kolk writes.

What if the single biggest contributor to failing classrooms was actually happening outside of them?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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