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How Exposure To Violence Such As Acts Of Terror, Mass Murders Affects Mental Health Of Kids

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A little kid runs frantically into an empty room, cowers down into a corner and puts each of his hands on the sides of his head. Outside, the sounds of gunshots linger in the air. A mass murder has just occurred.

Situations similar to the one above happen in different times and different places. Mass murders in particular had occurred in Juarez, Mexico—a place once known as the murder capital of the world. Unfortunately, little kids are helpless witnesses to the acts of violence and terror that happen in places like Juarez.

A new study in the United States explained that the trauma from such events negatively affects the mental health of children, making them more likely to have greater levels of emotional and behavioral problems. The findings of the study are featured in the journal Salud Mental.

Researchers from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) in El Paso found that children living in Juarez are harmfully affected by their exposure to mass murders, bombings, kidnappings, and decapitations. All these are linked to the city's drug violence.

Dr. Marie Leiner, the lead researcher of the study, said she was very concerned about the children who resided in Juarez, especially when the drug violence hit its highest point a few years ago. She gathered data about the mental health of youth living on the city.

Leiner compared the mental health of children who were living in El Paso to that of the children in Juarez. The concept was to examine the differences between a city that was relatively safe and a city that was often experienced excessive violence. Reports from the Chihuahua state attorney and the El Paso Police Department say that in 2010, more than 3,000 people were murdered in Juarez, while in El Paso, only five homicides were recorded.

TTUHSC researchers collected data from at least 600 child behavioral checklists (CBCL) that were filed out by parents in El Paso and Juarez five years ago. The CBCL asks questions to identify the psychosocial and behavioral problems in children. Each of the children is between 18 months old to 5 years old and had come from low-income families.

Issues like attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety, aggression and withdrawal were three times higher in children in Juarez than in children in El Paso. Children in Juarez were also found to have high scores compared to children with hearing impairments, brain injuries, and those who whose parents had substance abuse.

Leiner said while kids in El Paso are still affected by violence, they didn't have constant exposure to it in their neighborhoods. She said they didn't attend the funeral of their family members. They did not go to school one day and learned that their friends' families were murdered.

However, Leiner said the researchers did not directly ask the children and their families regarding their experiences in relation to drug violence. The study also assumes that children living in Juarez were indirectly affected by it.

Still, the scale of the violence in the city is unavoidable. Mere exposure to news could be frightening and traumatic, especially because the media in Mexico does not censor photos of extreme acts of terror like mutilations.

Leiner suggests that children in Juarez who have been exposed to trauma need to receive mental health treatments. Behavioral issues such as aggression could develop later in life and become a huge issue, she said.

"Exposure to violence makes you aggressive," said Leiner. "And if you want to reduce aggression, you need to intervene at a very young age."

Photo: Lance Neilson | Flickr

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