The Hidden Trauma Plaguing American Kids

William Kellibrew (center) discusses trauma and coping strategies with a group of Chicago-area youth during a visit to a psychiatric facility. CREDIT: COURTESY OF WILLIAM KELLIBREW

By Sam P.K. Collins

For nearly four years, William Kellibrew tried to bury vivid memories of violent childhood sexual abuse and the execution-style murder of his mother and 12-year-old brother in the depths of his mind. Attempts to forget the events of that summer, however, remained futile and nearly killed him.

“Our family strategy was to forget about it,” Kellibrew told ThinkProgress. “I suppressed my feelings and didn’t express myself to anyone. It altered my view of the world and disrupted my sense of control.”

Months after the murder, Kellibrew turned in an essay titled “I Didn’t Know Blood Could Fly”. By the next year, visions of blood squirting from his dying brother’s neck compelled him to avoid water fountains at school. Kellbrew’s silent cries for help culminated in a last-ditch effort to join his mother in the afterlife by jumping off a bridge near his home and into incoming traffic.

After his suicide attempt, the assistant principal at Kellibrew’s school and grandmother checked him into the George Washington University Hospital, where he received psychiatric evaluation during a 30-day admission. He later revealed the details of his traumatic experience with a therapist during sessions at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

More than a decade since the intervention, Kellibrew now recounts his tales of trauma, attempted suicide, and resilience on speaking tours across the country. He also serves on the board of the William Kellibrew Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycle of violence and poverty. While ThinkProgress spoke with Kellibrew, the widely-known details of his story have not been independently verified.

At the helm of the D.C.-based organization, Kellibrew helps high school students and educators — particularly those in communities of color — recognize the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental illness that’s triggered by traumatic experiences or the witnessing of such events.

“I was just trying to avoid these disturbing images from my past that haunted me every day.”

While conversations about PTSD often focus on soldiers returning from combat zones, research in recent years have shown the development of symptoms in children who live in violent environments. More than 60 percent of children have been exposed to violence within the last year, either as a witness or learning about incidences of violence from family members and friends, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence. Adolescents between the ages of 14 and 17 also face the risk of being physically assaulted by peers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies symptoms of PTSD as flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and loss of trust in people. For children of color still reeling from the effects of crime, poverty, limited health care, and poor schools in their low-income neighborhoods, the mental disorder can take a toll on the mind.

“I always thought someone would jump out of the trees, even in the daytime,” Kellibrew remembers. “I became so afraid of the darkness. At night, I would wet the bed just because I didn’t want to get up. I had just shut down completely. Teachers didn’t understand what happened to me. When I didn’t pay attention in class, they saw that as being disruptive. I was just trying to avoid these disturbing images from my past that haunted me every day.”

Left untreated, PTSD can trigger a host of mental disorders, including depression, which counts among the leading causes of disability among people between the ages of 14 and 55.

That’s why a group of teachers from Sandy Hook Elementary School appealed to teacher union officials and lawmakers earlier this month to secure grants that would fund ongoing trauma and grief counseling for students and community members directly affected by a 2012 mass shooting at the Newtown, Conn. school that claimed 26 lives, the majority of whom were children.

The heinous events in the quiet, upper-middle class suburb that winter sparked a national conversation about gun violence and childhood mental health, and eventually some some congressional action. Left out of the discussion, however, is the reality that violence similar to what took place in Newtown, while not of the same magnitude, occurs in countless neighborhoods and cities across the country, in some cases perpetually. Children in those situations often struggle alone in dealing with the endless trauma.

One in three young urban dwellers who experience mild to severe forms of PTSD say that people may doubt the severity of what they see, especially if they live in high-crime, high-poverty areas. But D.C.-based psychotherapist Lanada Williams argues that constant exposure to even the smallest incidences of violence — whether it’s physical, sexual, or verbal — can spur the development of mental ailments in children, especially in cases where school officials misinterpret cries for help as acts of delinquency.

“When children of color act up, we don’t try to get to the meat of what’s affecting that child. Instead, we adjudicate them and move them through the system,” Williams, also CEO of Alliance Family Solutions, a private counseling practice, told ThinkProgress. “People don’t realize those experiences affect children psychologically. Evidence of this might be when a child does not want to walk down particular streets. Another externalizing behavior is acting out and being destructive in school, often cursing out teachers and bullying others.”

“When children of color act up, we don’t try to get to the meat of what’s affecting that child.”

Keith “Tariq” Cunningham, a youth advocate, recounted to ThinkProgress meeting a young woman whose life spiraled down a path of self-destruction in the aftermath of her mother’s death and subsequent years of sexual abuse by a relative. “This young lady really thought so little of herself to the point where she was selling her body on the streets. She thought she was doing okay by performing orally on young guys and getting money for it,” Cunningham told ThinkProgress.

Cunningham, the founder and director of community-based organization Keep It Real, Where Real is Due, LLC, said he met the teenager in 2008 when he gave her a ride home after seeing her walking alone a dark street in the wee hours of the morning. Days after their first meeting, the young woman called Cunningham hungry and desperate for help.

“Her aunt’s boyfriend was raping her,” Cunningham said. “This was going on for several years. Anytime that her grandmother would go upstairs, the man would have his way with her. Her aunt used to get a lot of drugs from the boyfriend. The young lady thought that maybe he was doing that to keep her aunt [strung out] so that he could do what he wanted with her. This young lady was terrified to tell her aunt because then she would get cursed out by her and her grandmother.”

Cunningham said he kept in contact with the teenager and tried to connect her with resources. Months after their first encounter, the youngster entered a shelter, a move facilitated by one of Cunningham’s friends. During his interview with ThinkProgress, Cunningham said that he had some self-doubt in trying to gain the young woman’s trust and following through on his commitment to help her, in part because of his experiences as a youth.

“Growing up, people told me that they would help me with my problems if I opened up to them and nothing ever happened in the end,” said Cunningham. “I didn’t want to tell this young woman the same thing and not be able to help her. I was sitting there literally scared. I didn’t know how to comfort her. She had already been through enough.”

The struggle to secure effective, timely mental health care is not uncommon. More than 60 percent of people across the United States have faced hurdles in receiving psychiatric care, according to a survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Among that group, young people with unaddressed mental health issues have the most to lose; nearly 70 percent of youngsters who experience common mental ailments stand a great chance of abusing drugs and entering the prison system.

This unfortunate reality, however, have done little to compel legislators to overhaul a mental health care system that has been since in shambles since the Reagan administration. Two years after the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary, Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive mental health reform bill. Additionally, a host of states have cut back on investments on mental health services. According to a report recently compiled by the National Alliance on Mental Health, funding decreased by more than $4 billion within a three-year period. More than a dozen states — including Louisiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, and Texas — didn’t increase funding for FY 2013 or 2014, the report found.

“Growing up, people told me that they would help me with my problems if I opened up to them and nothing ever happened in the end.”

Budget cuts often pose dangerous consequences for those who need mental health care and their families. When coffers tighten, all parties involved in the mental health care system suffer. Children are left unattended and overworked case workers are left disillusioned by a judicial system they think doesn’t place much value on the words of those who spend a considerable amount of time with traumatized youth.

“We get no support,” A’leah Williams, a former case worker in Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services, told ThinkProgress. In her role, Williams managed a dozen cases involving children who experienced or witnessed verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in the home. They can’t even get assurances that kids will be taken out of dangerous situations.

During the year that she spent in that role, Williams said she saw signs of PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia in children as young as two years old. While Williams’ role allowed her to advocate for the children under her care and recommend a course of treatment for mental disorders brought on by traumatic episodes, she admitted that family court judges made the final call on where the child lived, even if was back with an abusive parent. That reality and clashes with her supervisor compelled William to resign from her position in October.

“We can do everything possible to stop children under our care from getting abused again but a court could overrule our recommendations, endangering families in the end. Even though we’ve been working on these cases for months, we still have to send them back no matter what. The reality is that the judge has the last word but even if you want to reunite these children with their families, many of their parents are drug abusers and have problems.”

For Hartford, Connecticut based social worker Denise Peters, who used a pseudonym to protect the identity of her students, ongoing problems in the home and community can complicate efforts to get to the root of a young person’s mental anguish.

Peters, who has a caseload of nearly 300 students, including 20 who have been designated as “at-risk,” told ThinkProgress that the death of close friends, threats from gang members in rival neighborhoods, and events unfolding in broken homes play a part in a dismal attendance record that prevents her from at least keeping track of each students’ comings and goings.

“I feel like I’m doing commonsense parenting rather than social work,” said Peters. “There are so many factors at play to which you have to give attention. You especially have to check on those who are gang affiliated because of all the activities that are going on around the city. I hope that I never have to hear the name of someone who goes to our school on the news.”

Peters recounted a conversation with a young woman who missed a considerable number of classes less than a month into the new school year. Upon talking to the student, Peters said she found out that she lost a close friend to gang violence earlier that summer. The conversation didn’t go far beyond that revelation. Peters later found out, however, that the teenager’s family faced ongoing financial problems.

To this day, that loss still hasn’t stopped.

“Oftentimes, with this student, as with other students, it’s not only one problem that they’re going through,” Peters said. “At that time, she lived in one of the main hubs of gang activity in the city, making her a gang member by default. She’s also concerned about housing for her family. Not too long ago, this student’s mother had her hours cut at work. They will probably get evicted soon.”

Even when a child overcomes a traumatic experience, the effects of the past still linger.

Such is the case for community organizer Tony Lewis. Not even a full scholarship to a premiere Jesuit high school could help him escape violent turf wars in the years after his father entered the prison system and his mother developed signs of schizophrenia.

Lewis, founder and director of DC or Nothing, an effort he says unites D.C.-based artists and “reverses the effects of the 1980s” with initiatives aimed at decreasing violence and homelessness, said that those experiences have hardened him — even as he works to bring light into the lives of at-risk children, especially those with incarcerated parents.

“In a community like mine, you’re conditioned to be anti-social,” Lewis told ThinkProgress. “All throughout high school, I tried to stay neutral in neighborhood beef. I started losing friends in my preteen years. In the 1980s and 1990s, that was the norm. To this day, that loss still hasn’t stopped. That affects a person, especially those who didn’t go to prison or succumb to violence. That’s what comes along with being in the community. Just because you’re not in the beef anymore doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you.”