A questionnaire answered by students at a Baltimore County high school shows that nearly 10 percent of them have received psychological help to deal with difficulties related to exposure to violence in one or more of the three major areas of their lives: the media, their home and/or community, and school. A majority reported a higher degree of exposure to violence in the media than in the home. Girls in single-parent households were the most likely to have been affected by such exposure. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Children's Center presented their findings October 16 at the 44th annual meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Toronto.
For years, studies have shown that adolescents are being exposed, in increasingly large numbers, to violence and trauma through the media or real-life experience. This study is the first to use a single instrument to delineate the varying degrees to which an adolescent is exposed to violence in the largest arenas of his or her life: the media, the home/community, and the school. The Hopkins researchers reasoned that knowledge of the specific cause of such trauma would result in better treatment of its psychological aftermath. They developed a questionnaire to identify the sources of violence in adolescents' lives and to enable teachers and clinicians to identify children at risk of traumatic reaction.
To test their questionnaire, the researchers chose an ethnically and racially diverse group of adolescents in a Baltimore County high school. Two-thirds of the students lived in two-parent families. To ensure confidentiality, the students did not give their names.
"We all knew what happens to children in the inner cities," says lead author Paramjit Kaur Joshi, MD, associate professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "We wanted to know how much of an issue violence is in the lives of American children outside those areas. Once we knew how they were being exposed, we could decide how to help them, their parents and schools, decrease the levels of violence in their lives, and cope with the results."
All of the students who reported seeking psychological help cited the media as their source of exposure to violence. Most said they were on psychotropic medication, and forty percent of them reported such symptoms as anxiety, lethargy, sleep problems, somatic complaints, and fear.
Future work will include establishing the validity of the findings and using the questionnaire in a clinical psychiatric setting. Joshi is completing a study, using the same questionnaire, of students in Bosnia to determine if exposure to violence presented through the media is as devastating and long-lasting as that presented through actual war situations.
Other researchers involved in the work were Dianne G. Kashak, MA, and Joseph A. Capossoli, RN, both in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, and Anura A. Desai, a Maryland high school student.
The Johns Hopkins Children's Center is the children's hospital of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Maryland's most comprehensive acute-care hospital for children, the center, with its 177-bed hospital and more than 40 divisions and services, treats some 8,000 inpatients annually, with more than 90,000 outpatient visits.
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