September 2012 Update: Recent Research on Community Trauma


We wanted to share some important research about violence and community trauma that can help us better understand trauma's widespread effect and inform our work to advance community health and peace.

Studies Show that the Reach of Trauma Extends Far Beyond Victims

If you've participated in a YVSP training or have been paying attention to the long-term effects of violence in our neighborhoods, then you're probably familiar with the concept of community trauma. It's the idea that violence does not stay isolated: it traumatizes an entire community, not just the immediate victims. But as clear as community trauma may be to you, it's remarkably difficult to explain this concept to people who don't work closely with the community. This is why we're grateful for recent studies that confirm how post-violence trauma reaches far beyond those directly affected by an incident, to their friends and families.

Vigil at Virginia Tech,
From Wikipedia

You probably remember the tragedy at Virginia Tech over 5 years ago, when a single shooter opened fire on campus, killing 32 people and wounding an additional 17. A group of psychologists at the University decided to track and learn from the aftermath of the massacre. Here's what they discovered:


  • 15% of the student body (estimated at 4,600 of approximately 31,000 students) continued to show symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 3-4 months after the shooting.
  • After survivors, students who personally knew someone who was killed or injured in the shooting were at highest risk to suffer PTSD symptoms.
  • Even students who were uncertain about the safety of friends and loved ones that day showed noticeable signs of PTSD, regardless of whether those people were actually in danger.

The YVSP Model is built around the assumption that violence and trauma form a feedback loop, so that decreasing one results in the decrease of the other. Using the Model, you can simulate how an initiative might affect the level of community trauma, and see how intentionally reducing trauma can increase the results of what is already being accomplished by an initiative.   

This study demonstrates the degree or extent to which a single violent event can harm an entire community.

We expect this to be even more true for neighborhoods regularly exposed to violence - where everyone involved is a member of the community, and many of their friends and family live on nearby blocks.


The conclusion of a second study out of Virginia Tech points to face-to-face communication as the single most important factor when it comes to trauma recovery. This could either be in the form of professional counseling or conversations with friends and family about one's personal experience of the shooting. The researchers added one major exception: virtual conversation - through texts or over the internet - did little to help students. In other words, there is something powerfully beneficial and healing from in-person sharing and relating.


This is an important reminder: we must continue to work directly with those closest to the victims of violence. Organizations offering these types of services, such as the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute and the Cambridge Health Alliance's Victim's of Violence Program, play a key role in the system. Beyond immediate "firefighting," it calls attention to the often overlooked role that churches and other community groups provide to keep our neighborhoods healthy.


But this research also reveals an urgent need. As this local study shows, many of the youth in closest proximity to violence - young people "associated" with gang members or "on the edge" of gang involvement - are also the most relationally and socially disconnected. This means they are cut off from resources that could help them cope with the violence they repeatedly experience, both directly and indirectly. Many of your organizations already have relationships with these youth, and are helping them address the trauma that they carry. The question we should ask ourselves is how can we work together to reach out to and engage greater numbers of these disconnected youth?


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