via WBALTV: BALTIMORE — Childhood trauma is common in some Baltimore neighborhoods, and it can impact more than just a child’s mental health.
Regular exposure to neighborhood drugs, violence and other traumatic events can trigger certain illnesses. If not caught early, it can affect a person’s health across a lifetime.
Semaj Stokes, 10, lives in west Baltimore, not far from where Freddie Gray lived and died.
“It’s really not good because you see, like, next minute, it will be fine one day, and then the other day, it will be really worse with somebody getting hit or getting hurt selling drugs or something,” Semaj said.
Semaj is in the fourth grade. Like many other young people in Baltimore, he’s living with trauma from adverse childhood experiences, which can include exposure to violence, substance abuse and even having a parent incarcerated.
“He hasn’t been there since it was Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day or any of that. He got to do what he got to do so he can come out and spend his life with me and my mom,” Semaj said.
Dr. Harolyn Belcher, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician at Kennedy Krieger Institute, said trauma takes a toll on the body. Adverse experiences cause the body’s central stress response system, called the HPA axis, to kick in.
“You get this traumatic exposure, then the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland, which sends signals to the adrenal gland, and what eventually happens is the production of what we call cortisol, which is a steroid hormone,” Belcher said.
Belcher said the body responds with an increased heart rate and releases glucose, a little bit of which is good for a person, for example, in a dangerous situation. It triggers what’s called the fight-or-flight response.
“But when you have chronic activation of the HPA axis, that can cause disregulation of the immune system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system and these lead to incidents of obesity, diabetes cardiovascular disease and depression,” Belcher said.
As a result, children need to be identified early and given trauma-informed care. Semaj and other children from west Baltimore attend the Harambee Center afterschool program where Alexandria Warrick-Adams is the director of youth services and Elev8 Baltimore.
“What it really boils down to is making sure kids have a place to be resilient,” Warrick-Adams said.
At the center, kids get to experience arts and culture outside of school. Warrick-Adams said children who have adverse childhood experiences are identified and get trauma-informed care.
“Teaching kids how to mind their breath through yoga and trauma-informed care and activities we do, arts. It’s letting kids have an opportunity to sit with their space and themselves emotionally and have a safe space to talk about their emotions,” Warrick-Adams said.
“I be scared when I sleep, when I have bad dreams,” Semaj said.
Semaj is learning to express her emotions. She can talk about how her environment and the absence of her father makes her feel, and she can say what she wants people to know most about her: “I want them to know that I just want to be safe.”