Trauma in Milwaukee: How community advocates are working to combat violence-associated PTSD

MILWAUKEE -- PTSD is usually associated with war veterans, but psychologists say it's also associated with people exposed to violence in our city, both directly and indirectly.

From fiery crashes, to carjackings, to shootings, the killing of children, countless vigils mourning lives lost -- it seems there's a constant barrage of traumatic incidents in Milwaukee.

Rickyia Langham

Justin Evans Jr. (PHOTO: Go Fund Me)

"Me personally, I was 15 years old when I first lost my friend to gun violence, and I had to deal with that trauma," Khalil Coleman said.

Khalil Coleman

Coleman, founder of Changing Lives Through Literature now works with kids who have had that experience at even younger ages.

"There's a big outcry for the opiate problem today, and it should be -- but what we have to understand, the trauma, specifically complex trauma is also a public health problem," Ramel Smith said.

Smith, a psychologist, said children living in some urban communities are witnessing a lot of different traumatic situations within their house and within the community. He cited research that found the level of PTSD among some of those children is consistent with the levels found in children who grow up in war-torn countries in the Middle East, and soldiers who come back from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ramel Smith

"So when we understand the level of what these soldiers had to deal with: the stress, the trauma -- that gives us an idea of what we're putting our children through every day," Smith said.

Smith said adverse childhood experiences can happen to people in all socioeconomic and racial categories everywhere -- not just in the inner city, but compounded with fatherless homes, high incarceration and poverty in marginalized populations, the traumatic effects can be greater. PTSD can be brought on by an accumulation of events, or one traumatic event.

"Like when I was about 11 or 12, there was a dead person on our porch," June Thomas said.

FOX6 News joined Thomas, Andre Lee Ellis and Coleman for a chat at 9th and Ring.

June Thomas

"I had a nephew got killed right there. I grew up around here too, but it comes and goes. Trouble comes and goes," Thomas said.

They said many years ago, the block was notorious for drug and gang activity, but things have changed dramatically. Ellis started "We Got This," a garden where young boys come and work on Saturdays during the spring and summer. They're paid $20.

"It's a garden of hope, and when those young people come here after everything -- their homes are so broken. When they come here, we want to have a space where they do feel hope, and sometimes the hope and the love come when they get to have a man-to-boy conversation for the first time," Ellis said.

Andre Lee Ellis

"Because we don't have therapists in our community. It ain't like we can say 'go see a psych,'" Coleman said.

Coleman said talking it out is key.

"We've got to bury it in the garden. We've got to put it somewhere, because if we don't put it nowhere, then we put it in the gun, and we repeat that cycle of trauma that was inflicted on me. I'm going to inflict it on you," Coleman said.

Smith said we are seeing the manifestation of the trauma.

We Got This

"When we look at an individual who's done some things where we say, 'oh, they need to be locked up -- the things that they did to deserve being locked up, let's look at the situation that created them to be in the environment that got the worst out of them instead of the best of them," Smith said.

We Got This

Smith said there are people who profit from the status quo. He's hoping the rest of us will push for solutions, like Ellis and his garden.

"I come off of the porch when I hear the gunshots. I come off of the porch when a child is sick or hungry or a woman is being beaten. I come off of the porch and I say 'hey, we can do better than that and that,' and that's how we began to heal and get things better over here," Ellis said.

We Got This

Ellis said besides love and hope, the answer is accountability from government, schools, churches, parents, and you and me.