July 21, 2017 | Mark Sheehy, The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration

Community Violence Produces Loud and Silent Trauma

Community violence takes a lasting toll on survivors, witnesses, and their communities. It can have a particularly devastating effect on young people, subjecting them to emotional and psychological distress that disrupts their lives, and makes them more likely to join gangs, engage in risky sexual behavior, and drop out of school.

SSA Professor Dexter Voisin has been studying the impact of community violence on young people for almost 25 years. His work looks beyond the images of violence, that include police squad cars and images of people grieving at funerals, to see what the impact is on human lives. He is currently working on a book that will be the first of its kind to offer an integrated analysis of the historical and structural aspects of community violence, the behavioral impact of repeated exposure to violence, and the opportunities for new policies and practices that viewing community violence through this wider lens might provide.

Central to Voisin's analysis is the distinction between "loud" and "silent" trauma. "Loud traumas are the incidents that involve fatalities," says Voisin. "It's what takes someone to the morgue and makes it onto the evening news. Silent traumas are the non-fatalities, the muggings, robberies, stabbings, and gang-related incidents that are 120 times more common than the loud traumas. The impacts of silent trauma are much more prevalent, pernicious, and far-reaching than many people realize.”

And while silent trauma isn’t limited to distressed communities of color, its effects are epidemic among African American and Latino youths who live in low resourced, high-risk environments that face structural neglect and societal disinvestment. The effects of silent trauma manifest themselves in many ways.

“My research and the work of others shows that young people who witness episodes of community violence are more likely to experience psychological distress such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders, and are less likely to finish high school or go to college,” says Voisin. “These youth are also more likely to be involved in gangs as a form of protection against violence or enter ‘alternative economies’ when excluded from conventional society.”

Silent trauma even affects young peoples’ sexual behavior. Evidence shows that youth exposed to community violence report higher rates of early sexual activity, drug use during sex, and sexually transmitted infections.


Prior to entering academia,  Voisin was actively engaged in field social work, providing mental health services for many of the families impacted by silent trauma. Since earning his PhD from Columbia University’s School of Social Work in 1999 and joining the SSA faculty that same year, he has been principal investigator and co-investigator for more than a dozen research projects. He also directs the School of Social Service Administration STI/HIV Intervention Network (SHINE).

He is the author and co-author of more than 100 peers reviewed articles on sexual health as well as violence and its impact on youth. He was the lead author of the 2011 paper in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “Towards a Conceptual Model Linking Community Violence and HIV-related Risk Behaviors Among Adolescents.” The paper was groundbreaking in its examination of how exposures to community violence have deleterious psycho-behavioral effects on silent victims of such community trauma. His expertise has been widely sought after by members of the national and international media.

In discussing the impact of violence with the media and academic audiences, he points out that young people develop different strategies to deal with community violence, some of which are gender-based. "Girls trend towards avoidance strategies," says Voisin. They find reasons to stay at school or home or other safe places and map the shortest, safest routes between those locations. Boys tend to be a bit more political. They try to identify the power brokers in the neighborhood and develop relationships with the main actors. Both boys and girls develop "escape plans" that generally involve finishing school, getting a job, and leaving their violent neighborhoods.

But these strategies are only effective at helping young people avoid loud trauma. The silent trauma of having friends, family members, and classmates fall prey to loud trauma is unavoidable for many of these youth living in these at-risk communities. Victims of silent trauma are also more likely to become victims of loud violence.

Further complicating matters, the effects of silent trauma are typically misdiagnosed as simply bad behavior rather than a mental health need or cry for help. Voisin believes that examining community violence through the lens of silent trauma can lead to new policies and treatments. "The first step is training the persons who work with youth to understand and identify the many symptoms of silent trauma so they don't mistake those symptoms for simple behavioral issues and respond by taking punitive measures.

“Teachers, coaches, even the lunch staff, and school security—they don’t have to treat silent trauma. But if they know what its effects look like, they can raise a flag and refer kids to professionals for services before they drop out or get into trouble. This is known as mental health first aid. Schools also need to expand the use of restorative justice approaches rather than defaulting to simplistic and narrow disciplinary actions, which often lead to other types of structural disadvantages, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, especially for African American and Latino youth,” he says.

The story of these youth is also a narrative of resiliency and incredible strength for many of the young persons and their families living under such structural disadvantage. Voisin’s research shows that protective factors such as having hope for the future, high self esteem, religious and cultural strength, and high parental monitoring mitigate many of the mental health, school problems, gang involvement, and sexual risk behaviors that are commonly associated with exposures to community violence.

Voisin points to several promising new interventions for treating the effects of silent trauma once their symptoms are properly diagnosed. One is using arts and music to let victims tell their stories. The University of Chicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3) Transmedia Story Lab teaches digital storytelling techniques to young people, who use them to create narratives about their lives and concerns. Originally developed to give young people a way to explore and develop healthy sexual behavior, Ci3’s digital storytelling projects have shown promise as a means for processing fear, grief, and other emotions related to silent trauma.

Alida Bouris, Associate Professor at SSA and one of the co-founders of the Transmedia Story Labs, is not surprised that storytelling works. “Narrative and storytelling are fundamental parts of meaning making. Many different therapeutic techniques use storytelling in some capacity to help people make sense of and have a different relationship with a traumatic event. It’s important to people telling the story, but it’s also important to the people hearing the story because it makes them aware that other people like them have had similar experiences and are struggling in a similar way, so there are collective support and resilience that can be drawn upon.”

Mindfulness meditation is proving to be another useful tool for addressing silent trauma. The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab and Education Lab are partnering with the Chicago Public Schools and the David Lynch Foundation’s Quiet Time program to test whether providing students with training and time to practice meditation can help them succeed in school by reducing their stress levels. Schools participating in the Quiet Time study meditate for 15 minutes twice each school day. As Voisin describes it, “The program gives kids a chance to de-stress at the beginning of the school day so they can focus on academics. Then it lets them de-stress again before navigating whatever threats they might perceive on the way home—or at home.”

Other organizations have been successful in using restorative justice techniques as a mechanism for students to process the effects of silent trauma. Kristin McKay, AM ’14, is the Restorative Justice Director at Umoja, a Chicago nonprofit partners with schools to develop teacher training and student programming related to social emotional learning and restorative justice. 

"The effects of community violence dramatically complicate all of the other issues schools are dealing with today," says McKay. "Regardless of whether a student is exposed to a singular event or has repeated exposure because they live in a violent community, the challenge is creating space for them to process that trauma. If a friend gets shot or killed, a kid might get a week or two of space and maybe a bit of in-school counseling, but the way our schools are structured, that's about the limit of what's available. If it's the fourth of fifth friend they've lost this year, our schools just aren't equipped to deal with that. Because trauma-informed teaching isn't covered in education programs, even teachers who do recognize what's going on and want to do something don't know what kinds of training or resources to ask for. That’s where Umoja’s restorative justice programming can be very helpful.”

One of the pillars of Umoja’s restorative justice practice is the creation of a Peace Room, which serves as a hub for non-confrontational group discussions called Peace Circles, as well as small-group mediations and other conversations. “It’s amazing what gets revealed in the Peace Circles,” says McKay. “I remember one boy who was getting in trouble all the time and was constantly being triggered by a particular teacher. It turned out this teacher looked like somebody who had been part of a violent incident in the boy’s community. Without realizing it, the boy was directing all of his negative feelings about that person at the teacher. And the event had happened years ago. The boy was carrying around these feelings—and acting out on them—all this time.”

In addition to giving students space to process and express the trauma they've gone through, the other benefit of Peace Circles and similar activities is that they allow participants to build relationships by supporting each other. "By telling deeply personal stories, they learn—or remember—what it feels like to trust and what it feels like to be safe," says McKay. "They also start finding common ground with other kids, and suddenly they have these deep relationships that they didn't have before."

But the downside of school-based interventions is that they are school-based. "Stand alone interventions for any kind of trauma are never enough," says McKay. "The clinical effects of silent trauma are just so deep and so complex and often take months or years to manifest themselves. And a lot of the social and emotional resources devoted to primary and middle school disappear by high school. After kids graduate, or worse, drop out, there's not a lot out there for them."

One organization trying to fill that gap is The ARK of St. Sabina, a community center that's been operating in Chicago's Gresham neighborhood for 25 years. Jocelyn Jones, AM '12, is executive director. "I think silent trauma is really under measured and under-appreciated in the community we serve," says Jones, "but it's one of the biggest issues we deal with. I routinely have conversations with elementary school kids who tell me, 'I have no more tears to cry.' They just shut down. They stop dreaming. If they're thinking about the future at all, it's in the context of 'if I grow up,' not 'when I grow up.' Some of them start smoking weed or drinking alcohol as a way of coping with their reality. And we look at them and say, 'What's wrong with you?' But these kids are barely getting out of bed in the morning."

The ARK of St. Sabina's efforts are two-fold, focusing on both school-age children and young adults. "We try to start early," says Jones. "We offer programming starting at age six, focusing on prevention with younger kids and intervention with older kids. The trick is continuing to get them programs and services when they're not really kids anymore. We recently started a pilot project called Strong Futures in partnership with the City of Chicago and the University of Chicago's Crime Lab. We're working with 50 young men between the ages of 18 and 28—basically guys who've aged out of school-based services and resources but are young enough to still be possible perpetrators or victims of violence."

"We combine intense mentoring with job, GED, and life skills training. We’re still in our first year, so it’s hard to assess results. But it’s exciting to be reaching out to these slightly older guys because research shows that the effects of even the most successful school based programs fall off once kids leave school. So being able to get any resources at all to these guys is a big change,” she says.

But while some schools and community organizations are making a concerted effort to recognize and mitigate silent trauma, the resources currently being brought to bear are wholly inadequate to address the problem. Voisin, among others, thinks that is profoundly short-sighted. “If you consider the high cost of special education programs, emergency rooms, mental health programs, prisons, treating youth sexually transmitted infections, drug treatment programs, missed days of school, academic or employment failure, we’re already ‘spending’ billions of dollars a year on the effects of silent trauma,” says Voisin. “If we spend a fraction of that on prevention and intervention we can make a big impact on both loud and silent traumas.”

And Voisin sees several areas for immediate investment. “Without question, we need to train teachers and paraprofessionals to recognize the symptoms of silent trauma so they can refer kids to intervention, and mental health services rather than juvenile justice. In addition, we need to expand trauma-informed curricula that create opportunities for students to process their silent trauma and opportunities for teachers to know what’s going on with their students. And we also need more youth-friendly mental health services that exist inside schools and within these at-risk communities that are developmentally and culturally responsive to these youth.”