By Stephanie Smith
CNN Medical Producer
Being around violence is stressful, no doubt, but it turns out that exposure to homicide may be causing cognitive problems in children, according to a new study. What is striking: Children who are not directly witnessing the violence, but who live near it, may also be affected.
“Local violence weighs on the minds of children…,” according to the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The pattern of findings is consistent with the literature on acute stress disorder, which is defined as a response to a threatening event that induces fear, helplessness, or horror.”
Patrick Sharkey, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, analyzed reading and language assessments of children living in Chicago neighborhoods known for their high homicide rates from 1995 to 2002. Some of the children (who were already being assessed, independent of Sharkey’s study) were tested just after a violent homicide had occurred in the neighborhood, while others were tested during lulls in violence.
The children tested during violent periods scored worse in reading, writing and thinking ability.
“In most violent neighborhoods in Chicago, some kids are exposed to an average of one homicide a month,” said Sharkey. “If we take these impacts at face value, kids living in the most violent neighborhoods are functioning at a low level for about a week each month due to violence.”
That adds up to potentially three months each year of impaired thinking ability.
While children who directly witnessed a homicide were apt to have more cognitive problems than children who were farther away, Sharkey is quick to add that even children residing some distance from a homicide exhibited cognitive problems.
“The study says that when children are exposed to violence, their brains become distorted and that’s probably correct,” said Dr. Carl Bell, president of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago and an expert on traumatic stress caused by violence. “Trauma messes up how the central nervous system functions. It creates hormones that are released and they can’t learn as well.”
But Bell emphasizes that the take-home message from a study like this is bolstering children’s sense that they are protected. That means stronger social support networks for kids; teaching them social and emotional skills; giving children a sense of power as a means of withstanding their exposure to violence.
“Even if you have brain dysfunction, if you have these protective factors, you’re more able to work around it,” said Bell.
What may help children work around violence is the study’s finding that the effect of the violence appears to be transient. Cognitive performance for a child seems to be restored about a week after the homicide, but what the study cannot explain, is how those horrifying images may translate over the long term.