My time spent in unsafe neighborhoods and unsafe prisons has taught me a secret: Most people in urban America and locked up suffer from what I consider to be a serious mental health affliction.
That problem is what I call “Hood PTSD,” a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. People raised in poorer areas with more violence across the U.S. are facing historical harms, anxieties and mental disorders similar to people who fight in war or live in war-torn areas.
The statistics are eye-opening. According to a report from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, between 3.3 million and 10 million children witness domestic violence annually. More than 80% of inner-city youth report experiencing one or more traumatic events. And 1 out of 10 children under the age of 6 living in a major U.S. city report witnessing a shooting or stabbing.
For myself, long-term exposure to abusive parents, domestic and neighborhood violence, and gangs and shootings has had long-term negative consequences.
As a young kid, I survived a house fire in Texas and had my head busted open with a baseball bat. I saw many shootings while growing up, and watched law enforcement raid drug spots in my neighborhood.
Where others have parents to guide them, I hated how my father treated my mother. And my brother, whom I looked up to as a kid, slapped his girlfriend around. Before prison, I also abused women.
My father was a full-blown alcoholic who abused our whole family. I took the brunt of it. He had already run my older brother and sister out of the house at different times. I think his dad raised him the same way — he must have had his own Hood PTSD. I do know he hardened me toward everyone in the world, in a way that made me not care about others.
Living with Hood PTSD made me self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. I loved alcohol because I could black out and not remember anything. And I could stop the nightmares.
When I think back to school, I think about all the ways I looked down on myself. I did not know how to read or think for myself. Even once I found a voice, it was the voice of a little boy who said, “Nobody will make fun of me and no one will ever abuse me again.” It was the voice of pain.
I needed to feed off of hate and hurt from others to operate. I got my guidance from the streets. Gangs gave me a false sense of love and truth. It was a fake brotherhood. It was a meeting of pained people. I still believe that had I gotten help from a doctor, it would have saved my life.
Instead, Hood PTSD led me to prison. When you don’t trust yourself and others, you think, “It’s me against the world.” Had lawyers looked into my past, or had the judge been told about my PTSD, then I think they might have had mercy on me. There has recently been a rise in the use of mitigation specialists to look into people’s childhood trauma, which can lead to lighter sentences.
When soldiers come back from war, we take their PTSD seriously and help them get treatment. Even though there are roadblocks and problems to treatment for them, too, we at least acknowledge the prevalence of PTSD for veterans, and have intentions to help them.
I wish we would give the same consideration and generosity to kids from the hood. Kids in cities across the U.S. have seen violence and been left with scars in the same way as soldiers serving in the military. As victims of poverty and violence, of Hood PTSD, we too should be offered affordable and accessible medical care and mercy from the judicial system.
Author Samuel Karim published a children’s book, “Sam and Lady’s Big Adventure,” in 2015. He has participated in several educational and philanthropic programs to better himself and his community while incarcerated in Illinois.
Policy makers and voters who shape the lives of incarcerated people, in most cases, do so without input from those most directly affected.
The Prison Journalism Project (PJP), works to change that information imbalance by “bringing transparency to the world of mass incarceration from the inside” by training incarcerated writers to be journalists, so they can “participate in the dialogue about criminal legal reform.”
PJP then publishes the stories of their newly trained reporter/writers, while also encouraging publication partners like WitnessLA to republish these stories that empower “a marginalized community to be a vital voice in criminal legal reform.”