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Oakland residents suffering from PTSD due to urban violence

Host Melissa Harris-Perry spoke with reporter Rebecca Ruiz and Oakland activist Kyndra Simmons about the psychological impact constant violence has on youth.

Last year's national average for violent crimes was 387 crimes per 100,000 people. In Oakland, the rate of violent crime was more than five times that average. On Sunday, host Melissa Harris-Perry spoke with reporter Rebecca Ruiz and Oakland resident and activist Kyndra Simmons about the psychological impact the constant violence has on youth.

Ruiz’s latest article for the East Bay Express, "Life, Death and PTSD in Oakland," profiles youth in Oakland--many of whom exhibit symptoms of or have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by exposure to chronic violence. Many of the youth Ruiz interviews have lost loved ones to random violence in Oakland, or have been victims themselves. One young woman describes refusing to walk in her neighborhood because "bullets don’t have names," and being unable to take the bus for fear of being kidnapped on the way to the bus stop; a friend of hers was kidnapped and sexually assaulted while walking.

Kyndra Simmons, program manager for the Caught in the Crossfire program for the Oakland organization Youth Alive!, said young people there “are living in what we do consider the war zones… it’s a challenge just trying to walk from home or to school or to the bus." However, unlike soldiers diagnosed with PTSD after returning from combat, the war zone is these children’s home.

“We call it PTSD but it’s actually ongoing trauma,” Simmons said. “Because they can’t get away from it.”

Her organization works to nurture leadership and life skills of youth affected by violence, and helps the young people learn to stop violence in their city. Simmons said the chronic violence has an identifiable impact on students’ psychological state.

"They hear gunfire, they cross yellow tape, so when they go to school, they’re agitated," she told Harris-Perry. "They walk around angry or they self-medicate." Simmons also cited how exposure increases young people's propensity to commit violent acts themselves. "Violence is learned behavior… [if] a young person is a victim, we soon know that after that they will become a perpetrator."

In her article, Ruiz interviews a young man in Oakland who was shot and paralyzed by random gunfire after his school prom, and as a result armed himself and joined a gang for fear of being victim to further violence. He told Ruiz,

"There is basically a war going on in Oakland... It's not that you leave the war. You always live inside the war. You're not going back home."

Harris-Perry questioned how school policies like zero-tolerance affect Oakland students. Ruiz said the Oakland school district has been working to help teachers understand what trauma looks like in youth. She reported that some schools are pulling back on zero-tolerance policies, "so that when you are disciplining a child, you are considering the type of suffering or trauma they’re experiencing and how that might be impacting their behavior."

The host also asked Ruiz and Simmons whether race, inequality and poverty "make it hard for us to see these kids as wounded children rather than as themselves potentially criminal." Simmons explained that her organization utilizes a trauma-informed care approach, making sure not to further traumatize youth by criminalizing them.

"We make sure not to further punish them or make them feel as if their behavior is just outside of normal," Simmons said. “We want them to know violence is a learned behavior and it’s not normal.”