The simmering toxic stress of Ferguson and its surrounding communities

Published on
July 13, 2015

In the weeks after Michael Brown was killed and the iconic QuikTrip burned, residents of the nearby Canfield Green apartment complex saw their Ferguson, Mo. neighborhood beset with tear gas, militarized police, looting and arson. Nearby protests entailed expletive-filled shouting, droning helicopters and sirens, the take-down and handcuffing of protesters, and gunshots in the distance.

I experienced this firsthand as one of about 25 reporters with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch covering Ferguson, a community just two miles from where I live with my family in a region divided by 90 communities — many of them near Ferguson, segregated, isolated and poor.

The images of police pointing rifles and other weapons at crowds and clouds of tear gas were traumatic. But what I most remember were the shell-shocked faces of young children who arrived with their parents to witness the protests and sometimes sit on the front lines as a witness to a history they were in no way old enough to understand.

These children, coupled with the despair of residents who trudged to an emergency center in nearby Dellwood during the unrest, left an unforgettable impression. I was told by counselors there that residents weren't just going through the very real trauma of Ferguson, they were reliving past traumatic experiences common with poverty: violence, abuse, emotional abandonment, food insecurity, isolating segregation and a general feeling of hopelessness.

Though there were many blatant factors that led to the rioting and angry protests after Brown's body lay in the street for several hours, it was clear to me that past trauma and existing toxic stress also underlie what erupted in Ferguson.

That stress continues today. Every day, as I drive to my office, I pass by homes not only with yard signs stating “Black Lives Matter and “I heart Ferguson” but dozens with the plea, “We must stop killing each other,” a nod to the constant human stresses, trauma and, ultimately, shortened life expectancy in these communities.

Indeed, a recent planning map released by St. Louis County pegged the average male life expectancy of Kinloch, a historic, segregated African-American community in north St. Louis County at 56. Meanwhile, in Wildwood, a mostly white and wealthy community about 30 miles to the southwest, it’s 91.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has done an excellent job focusing on many stresses in and around Ferguson that led to the unrest in Ferguson: unfair policing; municipal ticketing and local courts repeatedly prosecuting citizens who couldn't pay up front to fill town coffers; poor and underperforming schools; and racial discrepancies in policing.

For my National Health Journalism Fellowship project, I plan to write stories on the other toxic stresses and environmental irritants that plague those neighborhoods from the perspective of the people who live and work there. These stories will be tied to current research on the health and behavioral impact of toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences, in addition to programs that seem to be working in St. Louis. They likely will be accompanied by some sort of interactive components for readers to gauge their own stress and past adverse childhood experiences, as well as a graphics primer on the biological and behavioral outcomes of toxic stress.

Though this may not happen, I am also exploring some sort of alternative comments system for the stories that would enable readers to write stress-reducing notes of support to the subjects of the stories.

Topics to explore include: predatory lending in the region; the struggle for child care providers to deliver critical nurturing for poor children; the presence of guns and shootings in neighborhoods and its enduring trauma; maternal depression; the simmering anxiety among residents of Ferguson and nearby communities about the future; roadblocks to exercise and wellness; and the enduring trauma of Ferguson as told by several children and residents in and around the Canfield Green apartment complex, the epicenter of Brown's shooting, protests and later looting.

[Photo by Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch]