Toxic stress project resonates in St. Louis community

By Gilbert Bailon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Nancy Cambria has tracked adverse conditions that affect children for the last eight years in her job covering children and families on the Metro Desk.

While covering the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, she observed close up the mental and physical toll that poverty, violence and the struggles for daily survival take on families and children.

When the University of Southern California Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism approached her about participating in a National Health Journalism Fellowship focusing on toxic stress, she concluded that her experiences in Ferguson would be a vivid incubator for deeper journalistic inquiry.

So last August, Cambria and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Laurie Skrivan began a seven-month project that resulted in the 10-page special section “The Crisis Within: How toxic stress and trauma endanger our children” published Feb. 21. The project intimately detailed the travails and perseverance of several families in Ferguson.

The nation and world remembers well the unrest and protests after a Ferguson police officer shot Brown, who was 18, on Aug. 9, 2014, near the Canfield Green Apartments, in the area where these families live and cope with stresses in their neighborhood.

The Post-Dispatch special report delved into an array of problems that affect the health and well-being of people struggling daily to keep a job, the electricity running and food on the table and resist the ripple effects of violence.

Cambria observed that children in the Ferguson area exhibited Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-like symptoms from the deaths of relatives, effects of poverty and constant family instability. Doctors and scientists nationally describe such factors as “toxic stress,” which wreaks physiological and mental damage on families.

“How do I make this more than a science story?” she said. “How do we show the human toll? How do we show it with children?”

Cambria and Skrivan spent many days and nights in the neighborhoods talking to children and their families about their private lives. They had to overcome mistrust left after media throngs had descended into their neighborhood; building relationships took time and some rejections.

Skrivan, who was part of the Post-Dispatch photography team that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for photography of the Ferguson shooting aftermath, ensconced herself with the children and their extended families.

“So many people were willing to talk to me,” Skrivan said. “It was kind of overwhelming.”

She met with some 30 families about opening their lives to her camera. They were wracked by daily stresses and struggles. She said there were hits and misses on gaining their cooperation. And some days, even the few families who eventually allowed her to document their lives were unwilling for her to be present during the most trying times.

“I really have respect for the families that let me in,” she said. She also observed how people in the neighborhood rallied and supported each other to stay safe and keep alert.

Cambria recalled one of the mothers overcoming pressure from her own family not to speak to a reporter. The woman responded that people needed to know how stress and violence might be hurting their children. They wanted to help by telling their stories, Cambria said.

Skrivan recalled the impact of gunfire erupting in the neighborhood when a family was having a birthday party for a young girl; their phones or electricity being cut off, their living temporarily in a hotel and their car being repossessed.

The special section also detailed the science of how stress harms the brain and neurological connections. It offered tips to combat the negative impact. It also provided resources within the St. Louis area where people can seek help.

Thursday night at New Northside Family Conference Center in north St. Louis, about 60 people attended a Post-Dispatch community forum called “Parenting and Grandparenting Under Stress,” in which experts from mental health and other social services addressed the problems and possible solutions. Guests had the opportunity to meet with representatives from 10 organizations offering resources and programs to help families overcome stress and to support parents. Free child care was provided for 35 children.

Cambria and a panel of experts talked about how stress can contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and a shortened life span.

Residents were told that mental exercises can relieve some of their daily stresses and that many of our daily worries never come to pass. But for the families in the special report, the daily reality of hardship extends beyond the mental stresses that affect most people.

“Poverty is not simply the absence of money,” said Becky James-Hatter, president and CEO of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri. “It is truly hard to be living poor. Poverty is not anything that anyone would choose.”

James-Hatter commended the Post-Dispatch special report and special online presentation as a clarion call for the St. Louis region to respond to the menace of toxic stress.

“I don’t remember reading an article that resonated so deeply with me and others who I am talking to,” she said. “The readers being able to feel it and read it was magnificent.”

James-Hatter requested copies of the section to send to her board members and donors to make them aware of the intensity of the problems in St. Louis.

Cambria and Skrivan spent countless hours in the neighborhoods and in the homes of the families. A great supporting cast within the newsroom also worked to create the special coverage.

Deputy Metro Editor Matt Franck, Director of Photography Lynden Steele, designer Josh Renaud (who designed both the print and digital presentations) and copy editor Jennie Crabbe collaborated with senior editors Adam Goodman, Marcia Koenig, Santiago Carlos Ayulo and Bob Rose.

Cambria and Video Editor Gary Hairlson partnered with Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri to produce a video on ways people can better cope with stress to protect their health.

Cambria will return to the USC campus this spring to discuss the project with journalists from around the country. She and Skrivan will continue their coverage that shows our readers the effects of toxic stress and how our community can help to mitigate them.

[This story was originally published by St. Louis Post-Dispatch.]

Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch.