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Traumatic stress in St. Louis’ marginalized communities and what we can do about it

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Vetta Sanders Thompson

For some children in the St. Louis area, traumatic stress is an unavoidable part of growing up. Chronic poverty, racism and discrimination, experienced over time, contribute to children’s stress levels, which have an adverse impact on the way they grow up and contribute to their community.

Vetta Sanders Thompson’s research at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University focuses specifically on traumatic stress that is impacting marginalized communities in St. Louis. This week, she’s a featured speaker at the Missouri Institute for Mental Health’s Traumatic Stress: New Mechanisms and Effective Treatment conference, which runs March 9-10.

On Monday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Thompson discussed how traumatic stress is impacting people of color, impoverished people and the problems these communities have with adequate access to mental health care in the face of having multiple stigmatized identities.

“When we talk about traumatic stress, we’re talking about stressors that push people beyond their ability to cope,” said Thompson. “We’ve defined those stressors as things that lead people to feel their life is at risk.”

Thompson said that children who grow up in environments where there is substantial, deep or chronic poverty are at a greater risk over the course of their lifespan of responding adversely to toxic and traumatic stress because of cumulative effects.

For example, even if an environmental stressor doesn’t immediately impact a small child, it impacts the parents. These stressors impair a parent’s ability to nurture, support and access resources to protect the child.

The parent-child relationship has another kind of compounding effect. Thompson gave an example of a 5-year-old who wouldn’t personally understand a parent’s experience with racial discrimination at age five but might at a later age. When that child is confronted with discrimination, they would respond based not only on their own personal response but that of their parents. This process can trace back many generations, to other historical time periods.  

"[Discrimination] begins to impact your ability to trust others, it leads to social alienation and that impacts your ability to access resources and to effectively interact with other people to live a healthy life."

Thompson’s research focuses specifically on how experiences of discrimination impact marginalized communities.

“It sets the tone for how you understand communities and your interaction with others,” Thompson said. “It begins to impact your ability to trust others, it leads to social alienation and that impacts your ability to access resources and to effectively interact with other people to live a healthy life.”

Thompson has found that those who have marginalized identities report great stress reactions and a greater difficulty in coping.

Another difficulty that marginalized communities face is the idea of dealing with multiple stigmas held against them.

“The way that marginalized communities are positioned, they are often the mostly in impoverished [areas],” Thompson said. “Ethnic minorities, racial minorities are often at the highest levels. You have stigma with race and ethnicity and then you have the stigma of poverty. We shame the poor. Often the narrative is that they are worthless, they don’t strive. There’s not that respect. They feel that. Any child living in poverty probably gets that message and has to cope with that.”

Thompson said that the solution to such issues starts with our “willingness to have policies that strengthen our safety net.”

“The way I see these identities intersecting, it is clear to me that to optimize everyone’s potential, we need to make sure children are in a space that is safe and secure, that they have access to adequate nutrition, parents need to be able to know they can afford good housing. These are things that undermine the well-being and ultimately the ability for our children to thrive and grow and contribute to the next generations.”

She said that there are solutions that can be implemented to help marginalized communities. One community group offering such solution is Alive and Well STL. You can find more information about that initiative here.

“Even if we can’t get the policies we need, we do have treatments and interventions available for any timespan in life.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.