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New Orleans student PTSD ranks higher than the national average

Posted at 7:18 PM, Sep 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-08 19:18:59-04

For those with post-traumatic stress disorder — nightmares, angry outbursts, suicidal thoughts and flashbacks are symptoms of time spent in war zones. Those symptoms give victims no peace. 

But now, the symptoms are being experienced by school age children in urban Louisiana. 

According to a study by the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies, 60% of children in New Orleans experience PTSD. That rate is four times the national average.  

So, how did the Big Easy — a city known for fun, jazz and Mardi Gras — create an environment similar to a war zone? 

Niya Cordier and her husband, Jason Jackson, say for their family, it all began with Hurricane Katrina. 

One of the largest and most destructive storms in U.S. history, killed over 1,800 and left behind $125 billion in damage. 

"Katrina was a catastrophic event," Cordier said. "It traumatized my entire family."

She says her 10-year-old son, Will, saw things no child should experience.  

SEE MORE: Habitat For Humanity: Rebuilding New Orleans After Katrina

"My own son got to see dead bodies, people being shot, people being shoved to the ground, harmed, hurt, fighting over buses, fighting over food, fighting over the little bit that was being looted, waiting for days for someone to come and he was 10," Cordier continued. "What did they expect that would do to all of these kids?"

After Katrina came another trauma—gun violence.  

Samuel Chesterfiled is a longtime licensed professional counselor who's helped school-aged children through PTSD.

"Seeing my neighbor or the stranger murdered in my yard, I see the blood. That's traumatic," he said. 

Chesterfield says it's common for children living in urban areas like New Orleans to experience PTSD. "Natural disasters, traumatic events, abuse — and that's both physical and emotional trauma. That could be the death of a loved one, a chronic illness, that could be cancer, a traumatic event, a car wreck, violence, all of those things play a major, major role and especially when you live in an inner city," he said.

SEE MORE: How Has Our Approach To Treating PTSD Evolved?

With the support of family, Will graduated from high school and made it to college. But a decision to return home for the summer, sent his life into a tailspin. 

"He was playing ball one night …. A guy pulls out a gun and starts shooting," Cordier said. "Those few little words changed my life...'Ma, I got shot' ... The events of what happened when my son was shot was like a domino effect for us."

After the shooting, Cordier says her son turned into a completely different person. He changed his name, carried guns, and dropped out of college. 

The shooting left this family in shock. And triggered PTSD in his younger 13-year-old sister, Jayce. Newsy is not showing her face to protect her privacy. 

"I'm scared," she said. "It's like a thought [that] if I make eye contact with the wrong person and I hold it for a little too long, something bad might happen."

Jayce now refuses to go through that neighborhood of New Orleans where her big brother nearly lost his life.  

"It makes me nervous and it makes me ancy if I'm being honest," she said. "It's like, an unsettling feeling."

Summer months in New Orleans not only bring heat, but also violence.  

In 2022, New Orleans topped the list of cities with the highest increase in homicide rates, according to Wallet Hub. Mental health experts say it's due to a lack of activities, internships and jobs for teens. 

The Center for Resilience was born out of a desperate need to help children in the city. For the last eight years, executive director Elizabeth Marcell Williams has been a provider. 

"Over a period of time in the years after Hurricane Katrina, we saw a gradual shutdown of state-run programming for children and adolescents with mental health needs," she said. "Around 2012 or so, schools in the city began articulating a need and saying, 'We have kids in our building right now who are crying out for more intensive support than we are equipped to be able to provide and it's manifesting in aggressive behaviors and property destruction and, you know, children are not being able to learn.'"

They are now the city's only therapeutic day program, shining a light to help kids find their way out of darkness. The nonprofit provides counseling and enough academics to help students graduate.  

"On average, when we look at our success rate, 83% of the kids who have come through our program and gone back to their home school have been successful in that home school," Williams said.

Cordier says such a program might have helped her family. Instead, she and her husband moved to the suburbs of New Orleans for protection of their mental health, and peace. 

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