Trauma is the virus

Violence as a public health isssue

Anne Congress
ED Anne Marks at April Congressional Briefing

Congress heard an important message in April about violence as a public health issue. An all-star panel featuring Youth ALIVE! Executive Director Anne Marks brought that message to Washington in a congressional briefing co-hosted by Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois.

It’s not just the condition of the wounded person that makes violence a health issue. It’s the ripple effects of violence; it’s the spread of trauma that an act of violence instigates. This is what makes violence a public health issue. The mental and emotional effects of trauma – the paranoia, the sleeplessness, the fear — have been shown to increase the likelihood that a person will resort to violence. And in a very real sense, this trauma is contagious. If violence is a disease, then trauma is the virus, spreading from incident to person to family, street, neighborhood, community, city.

Preventing violence can be approached in ways similar to those you would use to interrupt the spread of any virus, a public health approach that identifies those at risk for not just violence itself but for that spreading trauma, and to treat them. As with other public health crises – smoking, overeating, sexually transmitted diseases – behaviors need to be changed. That is what the public health approach acknowledges and focusses on and it needs to happen more in the effort to prevent violence.

This approach to violence is part of a movement across the country, and the congressman from Illinois is listening.

Congressman Quigley represents parts of Chicago and its suburbs. His constituents know the effects of violence on their families, neighbors and their community. For the briefing, Congressman Quigley pulled together national experts who have seen the positive results of this approach. On that all-star panel along with Youth ALIVE! ED Anne Marks, Cure Violence founder Gary Slutkin, Olivia Farrow of the Baltimore City Health Department and Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their message: violence is the disease and trauma is the virus. There are ways to address this problem other than locking people up. Together, they discussed the need to elevate the health approach to a national scale.

As Anne put it in her testimony, “The health system is the right place, the health approach is the right approach, and now is the time.”