Carpenter R. Youth trauma is a silent epidemic that must be stopped. HPHR. 2021;34.
Eight year old Gabriel Taye was just like any other kid: he loved to play, dress up, and dance. He was good in school, enjoyed spending time with his parents, and was genuinely a very sweet and innocent kid with a lot to look forward to in life. But after being bullied at school one day, he went home, closed his bedroom door, and killed himself.1
Gabriel experienced the tragic consequences of not only bullying, but of the trauma that comes from bullying. And he’s not alone.
Approximately 10 million kids are bullied every year by their peers.2 And nearly 1 million more are physically or emotionally abused by their parents.3
This has helped contribute to nearly 4,000 suicide attempts by students every day, and to many other forms of self harming too4: cutting, prescription drug abuse, alcohol addiction and more.5 In fact, among youth, these statistics are at all time recorded highs.6 According to systematic research done by Murray, Cohen, and Mannarino (2013) and many others in the field (Westaby & Lee, 2003; Nader, 2007; Cohen, Mannarino, & Murray, 2011; Ditmann & Jensen, 2014), youth trauma is the most dangerous and deadly landmine most children will face in their lives.7 8 9 10 11
These types of negative behaviors cause kids to drop out of school – nearly 5 million have dropped out of school in the last 5 years alone12 – and to engage in other risky and dangerous behaviors like shoplifting, assault, and attempted (and actual) murder. But kids are doing these things not because they want to do them; they are doing these things because, biologically, they find it almost impossible not to do them.
Let me explain.
When a child like Gabriel is abused – physically, verbally, or emotionally – the neurotransmitters in their brain become damaged, causing their still-developing brains to literally be unable to regulate their thoughts, words, or behaviors.13 In other words, when kids are abused and experience trauma, their brain waves and functions change to the point of unhealthy abnormality that causes them to act up and act out.14 They are not acting out because they are bad or dangerous kids with low moral character; they are acting out because physiologically their brains are broken and literally cannot process and internalize normal and healthy behaviors like non-traumatized kids can.15
But one of the saddest – and most damning – aspects of this reality is that nearly 60% of kids under 18 experience trauma and are having to deal with its negative side effects.16 And the even sadder reality is that, in the overwhelming majority of states and communities, they have no treatment to help them overcome their trauma.
Imagine that: nearly 30 million of the 50 million school-aged children in America either have no or limited access to effective treatments that can help them become healthy again.17 And nobody is talking about this in America.
When these traumatized kids grow up – if they are fortunate enough to make it to adult age – they are still traumatized but the consequences for them (and for society) are just as damning: they become adults who often stay stuck in an endless loop of homelessness, welfare, crime, and incarceration that we will have to pay for to the tune of trillions of dollars. If we don’t deal with this now when we have the choice to, we will be forced to deal with it later when we no longer have the choice but to.
America must address its silent epidemic of trauma that is torturing and murdering an entire generation of youth who are crying out for our help and attention. And it must address it using new strategies and approaches that are not rooted in the old ideologies or politics of the past.This epidemic faces all states, all communities (rich and poor), and all demographic and psychographic groups (at varying levels) and cannot be thought of as a “those people over there have to deal with it” issue like so many issues in society have hitherto been deen treated. We all have to deal with it, and so it will require identities and egos of yesterday to surrender to new coalitions and personalities of tomorrow to help solve it.
Part of how we can solve this issue is by creating a national agenda around proven solutions like requiring a social and emotional learning curriculum to be adopted by all of our schools; equipping teachers and community members to build stronger relationships with at-risk children through nonprofits like Communities in Schools; and by increasing the number of mental health resources directly available to kids, schools, and communities.
The reality is the trauma crisis facing our youth needs to be addressed immediately as it is one of the biggest public health emergencies we will be facing in the years and decade ahead. After all, we have taken heroic (and necessary) steps to try to bring treatments online for horrible viruses like Covid-19, but we haven’t begun to take adequate steps to even discuss (non-medical) treatments for viruses like youth trauma. It needs to be put at the top of the public health and education agendas, and it needs to be addressed with a cross-sector panel of experts and leaders who are serious about helping our kids – and our country – reverse this epidemic.
It will be of little value if we can create all the medical vaccines in the world; graduate 100% of students from high school and send most of them off to college or to work; and continue pursuing the American Dream if the majority of the next generation cannot escape the haunting and deadly effects of the traumas they’ve suffered in their youth. We need to do better for them even if we could not do better for Gabriel.
Dr. Rob Carpenter—known simply as Dr. Rob—miraculously survived a tragic accident and vowed to not only rebuild his life, but to help others rebuild their lives, too. He has become a transformational author, filmmaker, and CEO who now advises professional athletes, celebrities, business titans, and everyday people on how they can become the best version of themselves.
Dr. Rob has been featured in The New York Times, Business Insider, and People Magazine, and is a former professor and filmmaker at the 2x Emmy Award Winning USC Media Institute for Social Change. He is host of The Dr. Rob Show. He is the founder of the forthcoming School of Happiness and has countless resources available on his website DrRob.TV to help uplift you – and to help uplift humanity.
Dr. Rob is the first in his family to graduate from college and his published works have appeared in the Harvard Journal of Public Health and The Oxford Business Review, among other publications.