'It's a Deep Emotional Ride' – 12 young people in Philly's hardest neighborhoods explain how violence affects their physical and mental health

In 2023 410 people were murdered in Philadelphia – greater than 1 / 4 of them under 25 years of age. In addition to those that died, countless others lost family members and other people they relied on.

As a Social Scientist Anyone who studies different types of violence and the way they affect an individual's health knows that the violence is experienced by young people in Philadelphia it's about greater than shootings, murders and assaults. Social science knows many differing types of violence that transcend physical violence – for instance, poverty, racism, etc negative interactions with the police.

In addition, violence might be harmful to health even when the person is just not aware of it. For example, I once interviewed a young man from West Philadelphia and tracked his heart rate. When a shooting occurred outside his front room window, his heart rate suddenly rose from 51 beats per minute to 116. He had heard the gunshot, nevertheless it didn't trouble him. He became hardened to the violence that took place outside his door and was shocked to learn that his body had reacted so strongly.

In order to higher understand the connection between types of violence and their effects, I conducted an ethnographic study 12 young people between the ages of 16 and 21 who lived in various violent neighborhoods in Philadelphia. These included Kensington, Northeast, Germantown, Cobbs Creek and Belmont. The study ran from 2016 to 2018 and was recently published in peer review Journal of Youth Research. The names utilized in this text are pseudonyms to guard the identities of the young individuals who contributed to my research.

I spent a month with each youth. I walked with them through their neighborhood, interviewed them about their family history, and measured their heart rates as they went about their day. They wore wristband health monitors and a separate GPS tracker for 4 days. At the tip of every day, I sat with them and checked their heart rate data and whereabouts.

I learned that where an adolescent lives, the societal messages they absorb and the assorted types of violence they experience can have a profound impact on their physical and mental health.

“No shade, no trees, no big parks”

The young people I worked with understood the dearth of investment of their neighborhoods as an indication that those in power didn't care about them, their families, or their communities. They talked about it Closure of public schoolsThe limited access to libraries and lack of trees or green space. As Desmond, 21, walked with me through her Cobbs Creek neighborhood, she said, “Who wants to live here? There is no shade, no trees, no big parks.”

They also saw how gentrification — the method by which wealthier individuals and investments push out local businesses and residents — was changing their neighborhoods. Kalia, who spent her life in “Little Puerto Rico,” as she called her neighborhood in Kensington, told me what she considered wealthier people moving in.

“Remember how I said that we were loud and that we were all close to one another and that we were all just hanging out and stuff? And they aren’t like that. They're quiet and have all their money, you recognize?” she said. “So I feel like they're trying to alter not only the neighborhood, but just the way in which people live.”

A colorful mural reads “Welcome to El Centro de Oro” in North Philadelphia
A vibrant Latino shopping corridor runs through the Fairhill neighborhood of North Philadelphia, adjoining to Kensington.
Jeff Fusco /The Conversation US, CC BY-NC-ND

“But I can’t blame them.”

Working with the five young black men within the study, I learned how their on a regular basis interactions with police affected their self-esteem. They told stories of police slamming them against a wall, knocking food out of their hands, refusing to imagine that they had no criminal record, or chasing them out of parks.

In sharing these interactions, it became clear that several of the young men had internalized this false messages from society and culture that black men commit more crimes and act more aggressively than white people. Kareem, from West Philadelphia, summarized his thoughts: “If you were a criminal, you're probably going to be treated a certain way. But since almost every black person is involved in almost everything, they think of us all as criminals. I can’t blame them though.”

Future, of Southwest Philadelphia, had a very tense interaction with police and felt, as he said, “hyped up” during a job interview. His heart rate rose from 60 to 106 beats per minute as police approached, then rose to 130 beats per minute inside 10 minutes. It remained elevated for half-hour.

On the strategy to our interview, Future told me, he stopped to spend the last of his money on a breakfast sandwich and a coffee. Shortly afterwards, a police officer knocked the sandwich out of his hand, pushed him against a wall and handcuffed him. “They thought I had drugs, weed and pills on me, and then I thought, 'I have nothing,'” he said. They asked him for his ID, to which he replied, “Why did you put me in handcuffs?” Then they threatened to take him to the station.

“Listen, I’m obedient,” Future told officers, explaining that he was on probation. After police “threw” him into the back seat of the automobile, a neighbor began filming the incident and asked police what that they had done. Future said the younger officer reached for his gun while his partner “tried to get me to f*** my hood.”

The purpose of the police encounter was apparently to realize details about what was happening within the neighborhood. The young men I spoke to said they often had similar experiences.

A new building is being constructed next to rowhouses in West Philadelphia's Belmont neighborhood.
A brand new constructing is being in-built the Belmont neighborhood of West Philadelphia.
Jeff Fusco /The Conversation US, CC BY-NC-ND

“It’s a deeply emotional ride”

Whether through experiencing police brutality, the kid welfare system, homelessness, or past trauma, each of the young people I worked with struggled with the impact of interpersonal, structurally And symbolic violence in other ways. Sometimes this manifested itself of their mental health and manifested itself in eating disorders, severe anxiety or bouts of depression.

Conner, a young black man living in Belmont, suffered from severe anxiety that prevented him from leaving his home at times. His pulse quickened on public transportation, sometimes reaching 150 beats per minute, because he feared that neighborhood disputes would spill over onto the bus. He went to the gym late at night to avoid fights and talked in regards to the friends he had lost to gun violence. On his feelings about these losses, he said, “It's a deep emotional journey, but I mean, most of us, people of color, are used to something like this happening.”

For others, their physical health also suffered. For example, a young woman had experienced severe violence in her home during her childhood and was involved in child welfare as each a toddler and a mother. She struggled with hypertension, severe headaches, obesity and anxiety. She complained that accessing medical care was currently out of reach for her, particularly when it got here to her mental health. Every time she contacted a therapist, she said, either the middle would close or the therapist would depart.

The research is obvious that Childhood trauma results in higher rates of early morbidity and health problems akin to heart problems. However, it was striking to see that these symptoms started to appear in people as young as their teens.

An overhead view of a busy urban corridor in Kensington, a high-poverty neighborhood in Philadelphia
A view from the elevated train tracks on the corner of Kensington Avenue and Allegheny Avenue in North Philadelphia.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Holistic interventions

Society typically attempts to scale back violence by correcting individual behaviors—for instance, by utilizing metal detectors to curb using weapons or by creating mentoring programs for people perceived to be vulnerable to violence.

I imagine a more holistic approach would go further. Libraries, parks and community centers Promote education, physical activity and social cohesion for kids in high poverty neighborhoods. Connecting people to jobs that provide a living wage helps maintain a good quality of life increase their self-esteem. Investing in high-quality mental health services in neighborhoods that lack such services could make this possible for young people what skilled support you wish to process their surroundings and what is going on around them.

In short, recognizing that violence takes many forms and requires multiple levels of intervention could make a giant difference.

image credit : theconversation.com