Helping Children Through the Emotional Trauma of Ferguson

Helping Children Through the Emotional Trauma of Ferguson

Joshua Calhoun (Wiley Price/St. Louis American)
Joshua Calhoun (Wiley Price/St. Louis American)

 

by Sandra Jordan
Special to the NNPA from the St. Louis American

Whether you saw it first-hand on the streets, on smartphones or on your television at home, the graphic and disturbing images of the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, and the ensuing demonstrations and violent aggression toward protests by night, leaves an indelible mark on the nation’s history. Peaceful protests shattered by the ear-screeching bullhorns from military-style vehicles, teargas canisters and rubber bullets fired on citizens and journalists by police in riot gear – those eerie images raced around the globe and can be relived as quickly as you can click “play” or visit a URL link.

Children often see things on TV that they do not fully understand. Traumatic events can cause anxiety, fear, stress and a range of emotions, particularly for children, who must rely on trusted adults in their lives to help them sort out what they have witnessed.

“The whole event is likely to create a tremendous amount of anxiety among kids because it’s all very frightening, said child psychiatrist Joshua Calhoun, M.D. “It can also create very stressful dreams. One of the ways we have for dealing with a lot of the day’s residue is working through them in our dreams … and kids certainly do it a lot in their play and in their activities.”

Calhoun is medical director at Hawthorn Children’s Psychiatric Hospital, a 52-bed inpatient facility in St. Louis County. He said youngsters want to their questions answered and want to learn from adults on how they handle disturbing situations. If they have not had such discussions, Calhoun said they need to have them now with any teenager or any young person in their household.

“They need to know what mom and dad and grandma and auntie think, and they really need to know how we cope,” Calhoun said.

Although individual families may have different ways of coping with major stressors, Calhoun reminded there are clergy; outstanding teachers who go far beyond the call of duty; and counselors who can be helpful as well.

“The wonderful thing about young people, they don’t really want a long discussion. Once you’ve answered their question, they’ve had enough, for at least now, and they are ready to move on,” Calhoun said. “When you get to us adults, then we get all philosophical and want to work it out.”

A 2013 American Psychological Association (APA) survey about stress in America indicates that teenagers are more affected by stress than adult respondents.

The APA reports the following signs may indicate stress in children and teens:

  • Negative changes in behavior
  • Frequent physical symptoms, like headaches, stomach aches or feeling sick
  • Acting out in unusual ways in settings outside of the home
  • Self-deprecating statements

The APA recommends if the child continues to display these or other symptoms, working with a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist will help.

Dr. Rachel Morel, a psychiatrist and a Ferguson, Missouri native, estimates between 5 and 20 percent of people who are affected by crisis can become fearful and overwhelmed with emotion, enough that it affects their abilities to do things they were able to prior the crisis. Symptoms can show up between two days and a month following the crisis.

Signs and symptoms of acute stress disorder include

  • Feeling numbness
  • Feeling like “being in a daze”
  • Feeling that things are not real
  • Feeling like you are outside of your body
  • Not being able to remember events that happened
  • Reliving the trauma with or without a trigger
  • Avoiding things that remind you of the events
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Easily irritated
  • Nervousness
  • Poor concentration

Christian Hospital and BJC Medical Group is hosting a free Mental Health Fair on Saturday, September 6 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Immanuel United Church of Christ, 221 Church Street in Ferguson, Missouri. Health professionals, including Dr. Rachel Morel, will screen for symptoms of stress-related disorders and provide resources to help those affected by the Ferguson tragedy to get back on track with their daily routines.

“They can expect to be educated about the different signs and symptoms that their worry and response to the events could be something that is more serious,” Morel said. “They will also receive resources to reach out to if their problems persist or get worse.  They will come away not feeling alone in their experience and response to these serious events.”

Calhoun said the Ferguson events can be turned into teachable moments with young people.

“That very serious discussion about racism, anger, the stress, fear of authority and the perceived unfairness of authority in this country … I’m talking not talking about an hour, I’m talking about five to 10 minutes of serious discussion,” Calhoun added, “I think it is an excellent opportunity for parents to help their children deal with some of the issues we all face every day.”

For more information, visit about teenagers and stress, visit stressinamerica.org