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Column: Dealing with Violence and Its Aftermath

Helping Children Become Resilient

The Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center and Alexandria's Anti-Stigma HOPE Campaign will present a free community workshop on “Violence and Its Impact on Children,” Thursday, June 13 at 7 p.m. at the Charles Houston Recreation Center, 905 Wythe St. in Alexandria. Giordana De Altin Popiolek, a clinical psychologist with the Department of Community and Human Services, who has worked with children and adolescents, will present information and answer questions posed by community members. The workshop is also sponsored by the Department of Community and Human Services and the Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria.

Youth Violence at a Glance

In 2011 the Centers for Disease Control took a sampling of 9th through 12th graders across the nation on the issues of violence-related behaviors and violence in schools. In the national sample, 32.8 percent reported being in a physical fight in the 12 months preceding the survey with the prevalence higher among males than females. 16.6 percent reported carrying a weapon (gun, knife or club) on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey. Again there were more males than females. 5.1 percent reported carrying a gun on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey. An Alexandria High School Youth Risk Behavioral study also done in 2011 showed different numbers, 11.5 percent had carried a weapon, 5.4 persons had carried a gun and 24.5 percent had been involved in a fight.

When the same questions were asked about violence at school, the numbers were lower. In the national sample 5.4 percent of high school students said they carried a weapon at school and 12 percent reported being in a physical fight and again the numbers were higher for males than females. 7.4 percent reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property and 5.9 percent didn't go to school one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school. Twenty percent reported being bullied on school property. The local numbers showed less students carrying a weapon to school, 4.6 percent, but more being absent because they felt unsafe, 6.3 percent. Slightly less were threatened or injured at school, 11.4 percent, and less were bullied, 14.9 percent.

In the aftermath of Tucson, Aurora and Newtown, there was an explosion of interest in keeping our citizens safe by somehow having better mental health care, and providing reasonable gun control. Back in January President Obama recommended four steps to change things: close background check loopholes to keep guns out of dangerous hands; ban military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines; make schools safer and increase access to mental health services.

The first two were easily done, just pass a law but it hasn't happened due to the National Rifle Association and the inaction of Congress. The NRA not only blocked any new laws, for nearly two decades they have blocked research by the Centers for Disease Control. Why? Because they didn't like a piece of research that was published in 1993.

At that time the New England Journal of Medicine published an article “Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home” which described the results of research funded by the Centers for Disease Control. The study found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide. The conclusion was that guns did not protect, but rather guns kept in the home were associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance. That certainly has been illustrated in recent news reports of the deaths of young children by guns owned by family members.

The National Rifle Association responded by fighting for the elimination of the center that had funded the study, the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention. The Center remained but $2.6 million was removed from its budget by Congress, the amount that had been budgeted the previous year for firearm injury research. The money was instead earmarked for prevention of traumatic brain injury, ironic considering the number of brain injuries caused by guns, whether the guns of war or guns on the street. There was also language forbidding any of the funds be used to advocate or promote gun control. This January Mayors Against Illegal Guns issued a report showing the CDC's funding for firearm injury prevention has fallen 96 percent. It is $100,000 out of the CDC's $5.6 billion budget.

Meanwhile about 30,000 people are killed each year by firearms alone in this country. The 20 children killed at Newtown horrified Americans but do they know that 13 young people are killed every day in this country? According to the 2010 report of the CDC 4,828 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 were the victims of a homicide and it is the second leading cause of death for those between 15 and 24. 82.2 percent of those killed in 2010 were killed by a gun. The cost of this mayhem has been estimated at $16 billion in combined medical and work loss costs.. That doesn't count the number of injured between 10 and 24 who are treated in emergency rooms due to physical assaults. That's 707,212.

As for creating a better mental health system, the tools, the ideas, the programs are already there. Schools, communities, and governments just have to have the will to see to it that prevention programs are available to all, not capped for lack of funding; that courses like Mental Health First Aid be mandated for everyone who works with the public, that all police and law enforcement officials have crisis intervention training, that everyone who works with children, teacher, nurse, aide, clerk, administrator get extensive training in how to recognize the signs of mental illness, to know that mental illness often accompanies drug use and is the reason for the drug use, and to know where to go and what to do for a child that needs help.

Those who can do the most to help children grow up mentally healthy are of course parents. They already know that while statistically violent crime has gone down drastically in this country in the last 30 years, there is much more firsthand knowledge of violence. Vivid images of death and destruction fill television screens, tablets and computers, even phones, not to mention violent entertainment. While researchers look once again into whether there is a relationship between violent games and violent behavior, parents can limit the amount of violence their children see electronically whether it’s the news or a movie. Children need home to be a safe place where they can say what they really want and really feel. For some unfortunate children however, violence becomes very real, and parents need to be alert for signs of stress, fear or anxiety when a violent event touches on their child's life whether it is the shooting of a neighbor, the death of a soldier at war, a plane crash or an accident.

It is a lot to deal with and parents need to become informed and learn how to help their children. One step might be to attend the talk on “Violence and its Impact on Children” on Thursday, June 13 at 7 p.m. At Charles Houston Recreation Center at 905 Wythe St. Giordna De Altin Popiolek, a clinical psychologist with the Department of Community and Human Services, will provide information and lead the discussion. She has worked for the youth and family unit of the Department of Community and Human Services for the past eight years. Her focus is on supporting Alexandria youth and their families dealing with behavioral, mental and substance use problems.

But getting informed is just the first step. The only way violent acts can decrease is if citizens insist that laws at both the state and federal level be passed to protect their children, not the needs of lobbyists. That money budgeted both for the prevention and treatment of mental illness should not be an afterthought but a top priority and that those with mental illness have equal access to appropriate, best practices medical care no matter their financial means.

Finally insist strongly that those entrusted with the education of children respect the rights and dignity of every child and deny no child the right to be educated to the best of his or her ability no matter how hard the job is.