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Harlem’s Children and Vicarious Traumatization

Rebecca Garte – a Developmental Psychologist, a Teacher Educator, the mother of 2 boys, GHC member, and a neighbor – explained in a letter earlier this year how the presence of so many adults in extreme distress in our community impacts children and their emotional and psychological development

I am writing to draw your attention to a situation that is currently threatening the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children in Harlem. Each day, Harlem children of all ages observe people in extreme distress whose behaviors include: self- harm, erratic outbursts, public defecation, and violence. They often walk in very close proximity to people who appear to be unconscious or semi-conscious and who are clearly experiencing a state of crisis. I am not sure whether you are aware of the literature on vicarious traumatization, but it has been well documented that people who are exposed to other people’s trauma often experience the same psychological symptoms as well as the same neurological effects (changes to brain function) as those who experience trauma directly. Among adults, populations who work with trauma victims such as social workers, police officers, teachers and doctors have all been shown to suffer from secondary or vicarious trauma over time. In addition, being exposed to the trauma of close family members/friends can trigger secondary trauma.

Children are even more susceptible than adults due to their development. Children are not cognitively able to clearly separate their own experiences from others or to make sense of disturbing situations. A recent study of 4046 children from 2-17 years of age found significant signs of vicarious traumatization in children exposed to the trauma of close friends and family members and to that of community trauma (Howard, 2021). Although both factors were significant, the community- based trauma accounted for the most significant effect after controlling for all other variables (race, SES, family support, gender, direct trauma). This was true for both young children and adolescents. The measure of traumatization used in the study had been strongly associated with trauma symptomology in prior studies and is therefore a valid indicator of trauma. In addition, there is research to suggest that when the secondary trauma occurs among those who share a racial or ethnic identity with the children this can negatively impact the children’s own racial/ ethnic identity development.

I offer the above evidence that the over-saturation of methadone clinics and related services that lead to a mass concentration of people in severe distress is creating a secondary crisis. The children of Harlem are now being forced to experience a form of traumatization that can be as powerful as being the direct victim of a traumatic event. The mental health impact of this cannot be mitigated by supportive families, schools or other factors. By allowing the siting of such facilities so close to schools OASAS is ensuring that children will experience the pain of vicarious traumatization with effects that can last a life time. Children are also making connections about race and who is protected and who isn’t. For Black children and children of color this can have a negative impact on their sense of self and racial identity. For those children who already have additional vulnerabilities the extensive community trauma they are exposed to on a daily basis can be psychologically devastating and hard to recover from. I urge you to research the issue of vicarious/secondary traumatization with the resources I’m providing below and draw your own conclusions as to whether the children of Harlem should continue to pay the price of their mental health and wellbeing.

Rebecca Garte, Phd.Developmental Psychologist and Teacher Educator; mom of 2 boys living in Harlem


Howard, S. (2021). A causal model of children’s vicarious traumatization. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, P 1-12

Horowitz, K., Weine, S., & Jekel, J. (1995). PTSD symptoms in urban adolescent girls: Compounded community trauma. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 34(10), 1353–1361.

Jenkins, S. R., & Baird, S. (2002). Secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma: A validational study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 15(5), 423–432Zahn-

Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, M., & King, R. A. (1977). The impact of the affective environment on young children. New Orleans: Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development

Wohl, M. J. A., & Van Bavel, J. J. (2011). Is identifying with a historically victimized group good or bad for your health? Transgenerational post-traumatic stress and collective victimization. European Journal of Social Psychology41(7), 818–824.

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