BALTIMORE (WBAL) — 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, WBAL reports.
Semaj Stokes, 10, lives in west Baltimore, Maryland.
“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, she’s living with trauma from adverse childhood experiences, which includes 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 says.
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 explains.
Belcher says 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 says.
As a result, children need to be identified early and given trauma-informed care.