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Trauma Without Borders

Jonathan Zaff Executive Director

The U.S. isn't at war, but many of our young people experience trauma every day.

It’s shocking and heartbreaking to see the lives of millions of Syrian children thrown into chaos. Now refugees, they’re struggling for survival, often without their parents, trying to find new homes, new lives.

A recent study of more than 300 Syrian refugee children in one refugee camp in Turkey found astronomical rates of trauma, with nearly 80 percent experiencing the death of a family member, 30 percent enduring violence, and 45 percent exhibiting PTSD symptoms.

We’re not at war here in the United States, but many of our young people deal with trauma every day. Among young people in the U.S. who have left school without graduating (arguably the most socially and economically disadvantaged), 14 percent report losing a parent during their adolescence, 40 percent have been physically or emotionally abused, nearly 20 percent have been homeless, and more than half report dealing with a major mental health issue.

Seven Threats to Graduation

More than half of young people who have left high school without graduating have faced five or more adverse life experiences while they were teenagers.

Any one of these adversities would knock most of us off a positive developmental pathway. Now add four or more crises. Imagine not one of these — being put in multiple foster homes, moving homes three or more times, going to jail, becoming a teen parent — but five.

Schools can play an essential role in providing stability, supportive relationships, an integrated set of human, mental health, and social services, and a sense of purpose for all young people, refugees and non-refugees alike. But solutions need to go beyond schools.

Young people in challenging circumstances need services to help resolve the psychological impact of trauma and help acquiring day-to-day essentials, like roofs over  their heads and food on their tables.

Most importantly, young people need caring adults in their lives. Relationship poverty is real and young people who lack access to additional sources of support often face serious consequences. All young people have assets to be leveraged, and relationships with caring adults help them to direct their assets and their energy toward positive goals and healthy outcomes. 

The plight of Syrian refugee children is a reminder of the trauma and hurdles that millions and millions of young people face throughout the world. It also reminds me of the trauma and hurdles young people face here at home.

*This blog post originally appeared on the Psychology Today blog.

Jonathan Zaff is the Executive Director of the Center for Promise.