Community Violence and Psychological Distress: The Protective Effects of Emotional Social Support and Sense of Personal Control among Older Adolescents

By Rosenthal, Beth Spenciner; Wilson, W. Cody | Adolescence, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Community Violence and Psychological Distress: The Protective Effects of Emotional Social Support and Sense of Personal Control among Older Adolescents


Rosenthal, Beth Spenciner, Wilson, W. Cody, Adolescence


Exposure to community violence among adolescents is a major public health problem (Centers for Disease Control, 2000; Kilpatrick, Saunders, & Smith, 2003; U.S. Surgeon General, 2001). Exposure to interpersonal community violence has been shown to be positively related to manifesting psychological distress symptoms among adolescents: a meta-analysis of 27 separate studies estimated the effect size of this relationship to be r = .25 (Wilson & Rosenthal, 2003). This relationship between exposure to community violence and psychological distress is as large as, or larger than, the relationship between psychological distress and the experience of child sexual abuse (Paolucci, Genius, & Violata, 2001; Rind, Tromovitch, & Bauserman, 1998), disasters (Rubonis & Bickman, 1991), negative life events (Lazarus, 1990), and witnessing domestic violence (Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt, & Kenny, 2003; Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntyre-Smith, & Jaffe, 2003). Exposure to community violence is also a more common experience among youth than exposure to other social stressors such as child abuse, sexual victimization, and witnessing domestic violence (Margolin & Gordis, 2000). Older adolescents have greater exposure to community violence than any other age group (Klaus & Rennison, 2002; Rennison, 2002).

The correlation between exposure to community violence and psychological distress (r = .25) suggests that not all individuals who are exposed to community violence manifest psychological distress symptoms; some may possess certain characteristics that protect them from manifesting psychological distress related to exposure to potentially traumatic circumstances (Garbarino, 1993; Gorman-Smith & Tolan, 1998; Howard, 1996; Wilson & Rosenthal, 2003). However, there is little direct evidence regarding the variation among individuals in the level of distress manifested in relation to exposure; "only a small amount of ... research has been conducted on moderators of the exposure to violence-mental health relationship" (Buckner, Beardslee, Bassuk, 2004, p. 415). Scholars recently have begun to acknowledge this gap in knowledge and to advocate for research in this area of psychosocial protection (e.g., Bailey, Hannigan, Delaney-Black, Covington, & Sokol, 2006; Feerick & Prinz, 2003; Gorman-Smith, Henry, & Tolan, 2004; Wilson & Rosenthal, 2003).

A protective factor is a characteristic of an individual that resists, ameliorates or counters the negative effects of being exposed to adverse circumstances (Garmezy, 1991; Rutter, 1985; Wilson, Rosenthal, & Battle, 2007). Protection is not a simple straightforward process, however. A characteristic may be protective in at least three ways (cf. Cohen, 2004; Lin, 1986; Coie et al., 1993; Dignam & West, 1988; Kaplan, 1999; Masten, 1999; Roosa, Wolchik, & Sandler, 1997; Rosenthal, 1999; Rosenthal & Wilson, 2007; Wheaton, 1985); it may act on the adverse circumstance; it may act on the undesirable consequence of the adverse circumstance; and it may act on the relationship between the adverse circumstance and the undesirable consequence. Consider exposure to community violence as the adverse circumstance and psychological distress as the undesirable consequence. First, a protective factor may act on exposure to reduce the level of exposure and thereby reduce the likelihood of distress; this is an indirect effect on distress. Second, a protective factor may act directly on distress to reduce the level; this effect is in opposition to exposure's tendency to increase the level of distress. If an individual who is exposed to community violence also possesses a protective factor, the resultant distress is the cumulative result of the two effects, one increasing distress and the other reducing distress; the resulting distress level is less than that which would obtain without the protective factor. This protective effect may be referred to as summative or additive effect. …

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Community Violence and Psychological Distress: The Protective Effects of Emotional Social Support and Sense of Personal Control among Older Adolescents
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