For Altha Stewart, MD, one of the most daunting problems in Memphis has an early start.
Dr. Stewart, a psychiatrist and director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, believes that exposure to trauma and violence in childhood starts a cycle that can lead young people to crime and eventual incarceration.
She is working to spread the word in the community that adverse childhood experiences (known as ACEs), including violence, trauma, household dysfunction, and abuse, may alter a young person’s emotional responses, and set the stage for future antisocial behavior. This doesn’t excuse behavior, but it does explain its origin.
The center, which is less than two years old, and its founder, are making an impact.
As a participant at a recent community panel at LeMoyne-Owen College that looked at crime in Memphis, Dr. Stewart spoke of how trauma and violence breed more of the same. “What happens to us as a result of our environment changes us,” she said. “Children’s brains change when they are exposed to violence.” She’s talking change that affects personality, sometimes for life in the absence of intervention.
“People are learning about this (the effect of trauma on children), and looking for ways to resolve the problem,” she said.
The goal of the center is to raise awareness for better mental health services in the community for young people and their families, and to coordinate delivery of those services to ensure the community’s youth have a chance to succeed.
The center aims to create a trauma-informed culture that focuses on preventing violence and trauma to children, providing help to children exposed to violence, offering peaceful options for resolving conflict, and creating a climate that supports children and fosters collaboration among service providers.
“We are trying to plan and roll out strategies so the entire community knows they have a role to play,” Dr. Stewart has said. “We need to change the culture of understanding and begin to encourage people to see alternatives to violence. Starting with children and helping them learn to resolve conflict without violence will be the first step.”
She is working with the Shelby County Juvenile Court to establish an assessment center to help diagnose and treat mental health issues of young people who come before the court. “We want to connect them with services and help keep them out of the justice system,” she said.
The City Council’s Crime Prevention and Intervention Task Force recently consulted with Dr. Stewart about the influence early trauma has on behavior later in life. The task force is working on ways to stem crime in area neighborhoods.
According to Dr. Stewart, “The one thing that makes a difference in the lives of children in the face of all the obstacles is a caring, consistent adult in their lives.”
Dr. Stewart and the center have recently drawn the attention of the Tennessee legislature. She received a resolution, sponsored by state Rep. Raumesh Akbari and co-sponsored in the senate by state Sen. Mark Norris. The resolution recognized her work, the work of the center, and honored her recent designation as president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association.
Dr. Stewart will be the first African American to lead the organization since its founding in 1844, when she begins serving as president-elect in May. She assumes the role of president in May 2018.
“Besides my role with the APA, the most important thing I do these days is at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center as director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth,” she told the panel at LeMoyne-Owen. “I’m not law enforcement. I’m not directly providing a service. I’m looking at the policies and procedural level at what happens to our children that is directing their path into the criminal justice system.”
Dr. Stewart also heads the Defending Childhood Shelby, a community initiative aimed at improving the lives of all children in Shelby County.
“As a physician, a medical professional, a psychiatrist, I believe the approach we are taking at the university, a public health approach and not a law enforcement-directed approach, really does get to the root of what is going on.”