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Life, Death, and PTSD in Oakland

How violence and poverty are traumatizing the city's youth.



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She cries softly, her large green eyes gazing downward, as she describes the last five years of her life. Things began to unravel in 2008. Her mother was randomly shot in the leg in July, and as the oldest child, Hayden was expected to care for two younger siblings. A week later, an uncle who lived with the family and helped Hayden around the house, was shot and killed — the third uncle she'd lost to gun violence since 2001.

"I was traumatized, I was hurt," she said. "I didn't know how to feel. It's someone you see everyday, and you don't get to see him any more." Then she recounts the recent deaths of five other friends. A stray bullet killed her "little sister," a sixteen-year-old girl who was like family to Hayden. She left behind a baby daughter. Gunfire also killed a fifteen-year-old friend as he walked through a nearby park. Another young man was shot multiple times as he went to the store.

These were random shootings to Hayden, and together they stoked within her constant terror. "Bullets don't have names," she said, and that's why she refuses to walk in her neighborhood. She would take the bus, but she worries about being kidnapped while walking; she knew someone who had been taken from the street by two men and sexually assaulted.

While the number of reported rapes in Oakland has decreased this year compared to last, anecdotally, the abduction and sexual assault of minors appear to be a not-insignificant threat. Kyndra Simmons, director of a trauma recovery program for the local nonprofit organization Youth ALIVE!, said the agency aided one girl who was shot fighting off her abductors. In such scenarios, Simmons said, the victims are often kidnapped and forced into prostitution.

"Young women are seen by men who are into pimping as property and possessions, so it's just like robbing," she said. "It's the same concept. They are stealing something for money. Unfortunately, it's been the young women."

But long before Hayden started worrying about walking through the park or being kidnapped, she had to deal with dropping out of high school. Stunned by her uncle's death, she felt incapable of sitting in a classroom. Instead, she frequently left class at Oakland High School and boarded the bus to visit her uncle's nearby gravesite. She just wanted to talk to him.

Hayden said none of her teachers asked about the disappearances. "It's probably my fault too, because I didn't walk into the counselor's office and tell them I need someone to talk to," she said. "I just kept it to myself, but nobody asked, so I didn't tell." When Hayden's mother found out about the graveyard trips, she enrolled her daughter in an independent study program, but that didn't work either. She still felt sad.

There is a culture of silence in Oakland, where asking too many questions about someone's death can invite trouble, and showing vulnerability can be viewed as weakness. And then these tragedies start to feel normal. "I don't think the violence affects people anymore," Hayden said. "And I think that's sad because nobody should get used to losing friends."

She has since found refuge at the East Oakland Youth Development Center, where she studied for and passed the GED test and now works as a tutor. She said this has given her a sense of purpose, as if a life less marked by heartbreak might be within reach. Hayden always wanted to join the police academy, and her experience at the youth center has brought her closer to that possibility. "I think I'll try to do something to change Oakland," she said. "Maybe I can be that one to start it."

Despite the best efforts of the school district, there is no way to find every at-risk young person in Oakland. When soldiers return from combat or prepare to leave the military, they are routinely screened for telltale signs of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. That system isn't perfect, either. Some deny their symptoms or have to fight bureaucracy to get benefits, but there still is a massive, well-funded infrastructure with a mission to treat veterans who volunteered for war. The children of Oakland, who just happened to be born into an urban warzone, have only a patchwork of services that they often don't know exists.

One way to reach people outside of school is to find them at the hospital, after they've survived an assault. Youth ALIVE!'s program, Caught in the Crossfire, was the first of its kind in the country to place young adults, who experienced and overcame trauma, in hospitals where they could engage youth in similar circumstances. It doesn't matter if the patient is a victim or perpetrator. In both cases, the premise of the program is that recovering from trauma may prevent future violence.

"We don't use the word 'PTSD,'" Simmons said. "We dance around those words." This is meant to simplify things, she said, but it's also to engender trust. Though empowering to some, diagnoses can scare some people or make them feel judged. Youth ALIVE! staff don't tell a client they need to see a psychologist, but instead say they might want to talk to someone about not sleeping or feeling edgy or using marijuana to numb physical and emotional pain. When therapists hand out a business card, the title reads counselor — that's familiar, that's someone who may have helped you choose classes in high school.

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