Exposure to Community Violence in Adolescence: Trauma Symptoms

By Rosenthal, Beth Spenciner | Adolescence, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview
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Exposure to Community Violence in Adolescence: Trauma Symptoms

Rosenthal, Beth Spenciner, Adolescence


This research explored the relationship between exposure to violence and psychological stress among adolescents. It focused on the cumulative experience of recurring community violence during the high school years, differentiated victimization from witnessing violence, and examined four conceptually separate psychological symptoms of trauma (anger, anxiety, depression, and dissociation). Considerable exposure to recurring community violence, but also considerable variation in the amount of exposure, was found in the sample of 455 first-year students at an urban college. Exposure to recurring community violence was moderately correlated with the manifestation of psychological trauma symptoms. Further, being victimized and witnessing violence had independent (as well as overlapping) relationships with trauma symptoms. It was concluded that attempts to account for psychological stress among adolescents must include exposure to community violence.

Community violence in the United States has been recognized as a major public health problem (Centers for Disease Control, 1990, 1993; Cooley, Turner, & Beidel, 1995; Koop & Lundberg, 1992; Fingerhut, Ingram, & Feldman, 1992a, 1992b; Martinez & Richters, 1993; Reiss, 1993; Richters, 1993; Shalala, 1993). Nevertheless, "research in the field of community violence is in its infancy" (Cooley et al., 1995, p. 207), and "the mental health disciplines are presently limited in both their knowledge of and capacity to respond to this phenomenon" (Lorion & Saltzman, 1993, p. 56).

Concern is based on the assumption that violence is a stressful experience that requires psychological adaptation and may give rise to psychological sequelae (McCann, Sakheim & Abrahamson, 1988). A number of responses, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and dissociation, have been observed in connection with a wide variety of traumatic events (Briere, 1995; Freedy & Donkervoet, 1995; Herman, 1992; Janoff-Bulman & Frieze, 1983; McCann et al., 1988).

In the past, the focus was on direct victimization and single, vivid events. More recently, arguments have been made that witnessing violence is also traumatic (Bell & Jenkins, 1991; Foy & Goguen, 1998; Foy, Osato, Housekamp, & Neuman, 1993; Groves, Zuckerman, Marans, & Cohen, 1993; Herman, 1992; Howard, 1996; Lorion & Saltzman, 1993; Root, 1992), and that less vivid but repeated exposure to violence may have a cumulative psychological impact (Bell & Jenkins, 1991; Brown, 1992; Davidson, Fleming, & Baum, 1986; Foy & Goguen, 1998; Garbarino, Kostelny, & Dubrow, 1991; Hanson, Kilpatrick, Falsetti, & Resnick, 1995; Herman, 1992; Lorion & Saltzman, 1993; Root, 1992).

Empirical research examining the relationship between exposure to community violence and posttraumatic psychological symptoms among young people is beginning to accumulate (Bell & Jenkins, 1993; Berton & Stabb, 1996; Berman, Kurtines, Silverman, & Serafini, 1996; Boney-McCoy & Finkelhor, 1995; Cooley-Quille, Turner, & Beidel, 1995; DuRant, Getts, Cadenhead, Emans, & Woods, 1995; Farrell & Bruce, 1997; Fitzpatrick, 1993; Fitzpatrick & Boldizar, 1993; Freeman, Mokros, & Poznanski, 1993; Giaconia et al., 1995; Jenkins & Bell, 1994; Martinez & Richters, 1993; Osofsky, Wewers, Hann, & Fick, 1993; Pastore, Fisher, & Friedman, 1996; Schwab-Stone et al., 1995; Singer, Anglin, Song, & Lunghofer, 1995; Walsh, 1995). These studies generally report a positive correlation between the degree of exposure to community violence and levels of psychological distress.

Most of the investigations have been conducted with children. However, 16- to 19-year-olds have much higher levels of exposure to robbery and assault than do younger adolescents and children (Bastian, 1992; Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994; Lowry, Sleet, Duncan, Powell, & Kobler, 1995; Rand, 1998).

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Exposure to Community Violence in Adolescence: Trauma Symptoms


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