The Long-Reaching Effects of Toxic Stress in Watts

May 23, 2019
Ryan Imondi

Donny Joubert knew it was hard growing up in South Los Angeles, but he had not anticipated how bleak it was until the winter of 2005 when seven men were murdered over the span of one month. Joubert had always called Watts home. He was born and raised at the Nickerson Gardens housing development, and at the time, worked there as a member of the housing authority team.

In the weeks following the murders, neighbors shared with Joubert how little faith they had about living in Watts. Older residents said they never left their homes for fear of being victimized and children as young as seven told Joubert they didn’t envision a future where they made it to adulthood – and some didn’t even imagine living another year.

“These kids had seen their older siblings get shot so why would they want to invest any time in school when they felt like they wouldn’t make it to their next birthday?” Joubert asked.

Donny Joubert, fourth from left, poses with other members of the Watts Gang Task Force.

As a response, Joubert led a coalition of residents to create the Watts Gang Task Force, which brought positive changes to policing and policy development by creating a space where all levels of the community worked together to make Watts safer. The last 14 years have seen a major drop in violent crimes thanks in part to the task force. Yet with persistent violence and residents who have trouble imagining a brighter future in Watts, Joubert and other residents see mental health services and wellness as a crucial piece to improving safety in their community.

Marion Dave, Vice President of Community Innovations at Children’s Institute, has been overseeing the next chapter in supporting safe and healthy families in Watts. CII’s Watts Campus is located in the center of the community and partners closely with the Task Force, LAPD, the city attorney’s office, and other nonprofits and faith-based groups that serve the region. From preschools in each of the neighborhood’s five housing developments, to early childhood home visitation services, to immediate support for children exposed to gun violence, CII has programs working at different levels in the community with a focus on mental health and well-being.

These kids had seen their older siblings get shot so why would they want to invest any time in school when they felt like they wouldn’t make it to their next birthday?

Donny Joubert, Co-founder of the Watts Gang Task Force

Dave said CII staff are focused on transforming Watts from a community struggling with the weight of toxic stress to partnering with residents, neighborhood advocates, and other organizations to enhance resiliency and self-sufficiency around mental health and wellbeing. While Watts and other parts of South LA have come a long way from the early 1990s when homicides peaked at over 1,000 annually across the city, there is a great deal of potential in emphasizing wellness to improve safety.

“Intergenerational trauma is what is happening in this community,” Dave said. “Kids are dealing with grief and loss that are not being addressed while parents are struggling with their own adversity and are not necessarily able to provide support for these challenges.”

Recent investment and public support for mental health and wellness have been bolstered by a growing body of research that has shown childhood trauma to be a public health crisis. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s first-ever Surgeon General who was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom last January, has described childhood adversity as something that “literally gets under our skin and has the potential to change our health.”

Beginning with a groundbreaking Kaiser Permanente study from the 1990s that linked adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to serious and long term health consequences, research in the last decade has included Dr. Burke Harris’ own transformative work. All demonstrate the correlation between traumatic early experiences, including community violence, leading to serious and persistent mental and physical health conditions.

Marion Dave and Dr. Todd Sosna, left, met with Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán and other leaders to discuss community violence and mental health support in Watts.

Dr. Todd Sosna, Chief Program Officer at CII, said persistent stress can affect brain development in children and lead to lifelong health issues. Prolonged exposure to physical or mental abuse, parents struggling with substance abuse, or witnessing violence during childhood releases adrenaline and other hormones that impact healthy development.

“Our minds are designed to be self-healing,” Dr. Sosna said. “If a negative event persists, there is no opportunity to recover, and it becomes problematic if sustained for long periods of time.”

Toxic stress throughout childhood can result in behavioral issues for adults including substance abuse or struggling with education, employment and relationships. Challenges with depression, heart disease and severe obesity can plague mental and physical health. Dr. Sosna said toxic stress can make someone easily agitated, withdrawn or distracted as a reaction to the trauma they endured.

Kids are distressed when they hear about people getting shot. It is very difficult to quantify how many encounters they have with trauma and how many of those traumas they are dealing with at any given time.

Marion Dave, Vice President of Community Innovations at CII

Dave said in Watts, along with other marginalized communities, toxic stress and childhood adversity are higher and many residents fear being the victim of or witnessing a violent crime.

Since January, South LA has endured a spike in violent crime including a one week period where 29 people were shot and seven killed in gun-related incidents across the city. Many of the shootings happened around the housing developments in Watts, leaving residents on edge and facing increasing levels of toxic stress.

“Kids are distressed when they hear about people getting shot,” Dave said. “It is very difficult to quantify how many encounters they have with trauma and how many of those traumas they are dealing with at any given time.”

CII hosts mental wellness event in Watts
CII collaborated with more than 50 community resource providers to hold a wellness event in Watts focused on reducing the stigma around mental health services and promoting healthy activities.

LAPD Captain Louis Paglialonga, the commanding officer for Southeast LA, said he has seen firsthand how inadequate support for mental health creates a cycle of violence in areas with high rates of crime.

“When kids are exposed to violence and think that it is normal, and they are unable to cope with what has happened, they are likelier to wind up on corners as members of gangs or become victims of crimes,” he said.

Dave said that to support the healing process, the cycle of trauma must be uprooted by helping people get support for their mental health needs while encouraging residents to practice mental wellness.

Just like many children, I began avoiding certain parts of my neighborhood out of fear of falling victim to gun violence. My family and I weren’t aware of any programs, where to go, or who to contact for assistance with coping with the anxiety and stress.

Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán

“Mental wellness means you recognize what is happening to you and recognize what is happening to other people around you,” Dave said. “We’re trying to flip the script on what is considered ‘normal’ and show people that everybody deserves to be well.”

When Dave describes a trauma resilient community, she is talking about a place where residents get adequate support when they experience trauma, and providing services that prevent toxic stress.

Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán, who represents California’s 44th Congressional District, which includes the communities of Watts, Compton and Florence-Firestone, said she remembers ducking under her kitchen table as a kid when she would hear the sounds of gunshots nearby.

“Growing up in the Harbor Gateway community, the sounds of gunshots, police sirens and helicopters were all too familiar,” Barragán said. “Just like many children, I began avoiding certain parts of my neighborhood out of fear of falling victim to gun violence. My family and I weren’t aware of any programs, where to go, or who to contact for assistance with coping with the anxiety and stress.”

Mental health support in Watts
Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán, center left, visited CII’s Watts Campus to discuss mental health and community violence. Marion Dave, center right, oversees these services for CII in Watts.

Barragán said services that expand access to mental health and wellness support has led to South LA becoming a stronger and safer community.

Dave agrees with Barragán and said services like early childhood, mental health and family strengthening programs have been especially important in reducing the stigma around seeking out help. Dave said these higher levels of engagement reflect staff listening to the community and developing trust while learning directly from clients. She said this level of support around mental health and wellness points to a healthier South LA that is headed in a positive direction.

“Everybody needs support – everybody,” Dave said. “And everybody deserves to be well.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you are interested in learning more about mental health and wellness at Children’s Institute or need access to mental health services, please contact 213.807.1998 or fet8@childrensinstitute.org.