Inside Every Failed Economy Lives Families in Distress

A Time To Heal and Trauma Con

The name of the series was “A Time to Heal,” which may not be a title you would expect for a five-part, extensively researched, year-in-the-making story about the economic plight of a city.

According to Journal Sentinel economics writer John Schmid, his editors gave this notable series that title in order to acknowledge Milwaukee’s generational, financial and social brokenness. All of which need a time to heal.

Schmid shared the story-behind-the-story as part of the Trauma in Our Community conference in Milwaukee earlier this summer.

Story with a Surprise Beginning

In his author talk, Schmid shared that when he set out to tell the story about poverty-stricken Milwaukee, he expected to write about the need for jobs, job training and other themes common in economics reporting.

Instead, Schmid said, “The story took a radically different direction” once he learned about the dramatic impact of Milwaukee’s industrial crash on workers, families and children.

In this excerpt from part one of the Journal Sentinel series, Schmid writes, “As jobs disappeared, so did many of the dreams that came with them. And people and their families began to break.”

He was referring primarily to men from the south who moved their families to Milwaukee, as part of the Great Migration of the 1960s, to work in its booming industries. They could not have predicted how quickly those jobs would dry up and at what costs.

Seeds of Distress

Those same families who had owned homes and done well for themselves, began to break under financial stress. Fear and anger, addiction, household violence and abuse, and child neglect became more prevalent.

“The seeds of distress were planted years ago when the current generation of adults were children,” Schmid reported in the series. What’s worse, “Experts agree that new seeds of distress are being planted right now.”

This punctuates the author’s theory that Milwaukee isn’t in economic disarray due to only the obvious factors – lack of jobs, high crime rates, and low graduation rates – but also because of generational trauma.

A Gut Punch

“That’s the insidious thing about trauma,” Schmid said, quoting one of his subject matter experts, Tim Grove of SaintA. “It’s hard to recognize, diagnose and treat – at least under conventional methods.”

What experts have learned in the past 20 years is that prolonged exposure to adversities, such as financial stress, parental addiction, abuse, neglect, and violence, can cause a trauma response, especially in children. “It’s an injury to the developing brain,” said Schmid. “It’s a gut punch with the potential to divide one’s life into a before and an after.”

One of Many Resiliency Stories

Although not easy, the downward spiral of trauma, poverty, desperation and crime, can be contained – if there’s trauma-informed intervention.

In the middle of the five-part series, Schmid introduced his readers to Alisha, a young woman whose willingness to share her experiences with serious childhood trauma really brought to life the title, “A Time to Heal.”

Alisha was present for Schmid’s author talk, sitting at a table near the front of the room with her grandmother and Aunt Shelly. In Alisha’s case, it’s easy to see how important relationships have been to her resiliency after surviving abuse and living with the related chronic stress.

Schmid would later learn Alisha wasn’t just there to listen. She was there to surprise him with a plaque to honor how well he had told her story and the stories of other trauma survivors like Belinda Pittman-McGee, whose story is told in part one of the series; Jameelah Love from part two; and Lewis Lee from part three.

Trauma Experts Coming Together

“The broad phenomenon of generational trauma took me by surprise,” Schmid humbly admitted in his presentation. After many years of writing about the economics of a city, he said it is now clear to him that trauma is a full-blown public health epidemic affecting the ability of urban centers like Milwaukee to thrive.

Local trauma experts agree and several panelists, including researchers, judges, attorneys, community advocates, and health professionals, gave responses to Schmid’s presentation.

“Back stories matter,” said Judge Mary Triggiano of Milwaukee County Circuit Court. She went on to tell the story of a young woman who, despite being introduced to drugs by her own mother when she was barely a teenager, had just successfully completed family drug court and was being reunified with her children.

Dr. Kelly Hodges of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin echoed the importance of a person’s history. “We have seen health effects of trauma all along, and now we have data showing it can shorten life expectancy by 20 years.” She says this helps emphasize the importance of early interventions. “We see the effects of trauma every day,” adds Pete Carlson, president of Aurora Psychiatric Hospital.

Other panelists included Dr. Dimitri Topitzes of the Institute for Child and Family Well-Being; Jermaine Reed of Fresh Start Family Services; Kent Lovern of the District Attorney’s Office; and Tim Grove, Chief Clincal Officer at SaintA.

So, What’s Next?

During Q&A with Schmid and the panelists, one audience member summed up the feeling of everyone in the room with one poignant question. With a heavy sigh, he asked the trauma experts, “So, now that we are aware of generational trauma, what’s next?”

In Milwaukee, the answer is likely better collaboration. It has already begun, as evidenced by the diverse range of panelists and their varied expertise.

To bring health care and mental health experts together in the same room as trauma researchers and child welfare practitioners will no longer be novel. It will be common practice.

If you haven’t already, please read the five-part series linked below. Also, learn more about trauma informed care, including training opportunities.

  1. From generation to generation: An epidemic of childhood trauma haunts Milwaukee.
  2. An intractable problem: ‘A lot of people don’t have a rainbow in their story.’
  3. ‘I’m defying the odds’: Healing invisible scars demands resilience, intervention, time.
  4. The unlikeliest neighborhood: Amid industrial ruins, a transformative strategy emerges.
  5. Lessons from history: Immigration was, is, and will be a source of renewal in Milwaukee.

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