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A Portrait of Hope

Dec 16, 2013, 4:46 PM, Posted by Jeff Meade

Chuck Connelly Culture of Health Blog Post Artist Chuck Connelly and his monumental remembrance of the children of Sandy Hook

I first came to know Chuck Connelly in April of last year. He’s a gifted, famous and often controversial artist, whose work has appeared in countless galleries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s very much his own man, and that man can be difficult. A writer once described Connelly as “Norman Rockwell on acid—a maverick narrative painter pushing the limits of myth into a modern malaise all his own.”

It’s a left-handed compliment, but there’s no getting around the undeniable truth: Chuck Connelly is an extraordinary talent. He may come across as a rumpled, dark-witted cynic, but on the inside, he is a luminous soul.

So here’s how I came to know Chuck Connelly. He’s an Irish-American who lives in Philly's East Oak Lane neighborhood, and I co-author a blog devoted to Irish culture in Philadelphia. So for our purposes, Connelly was grist for the mill.

And so it was that I found myself on the topmost floor of a ramshackle barn one dreary day last April, gazing upon Connelly’s most recent magnum opus: twenty painstakingly detailed oils on canvas, each one bearing the likeness of a first grader murdered by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. All of the paintings were clustered in a simple 10- by 12-foot wooden frame. The entire assembly towered over us. It was a breathtaking, shattering remembrance.
 

When news of the shooting broke, Connelly reacted as the rest of us did, with horror, frustration and anger. A couple of days later, he started painting a portrait of one of the young victims, 6-year-old Emilie Parker. At first, he wasn’t sure where the project was taking him. At that point, it really wasn’t a project. “I started to do the one, Emilie, when it first happened,” Connelly explained to me. “Her face was everywhere. I just thought ... what a tragedy. So I painted her. Then I made Dylan (Hockley), and then I thought ... you know what? I gotta do them all.”

Last week, Connelly’s “Children of Sandy Hook” went on display at Villanova University to commemorate the one-year anniversary.

As that anniversary arrived last weekend, I thought about Chuck Connelly’s heartfelt tribute. It caused me to wonder, probably for the millionth time, when we’re ever going to come to grips with the problem of gun violence. Every shot fired wounds us all.

Here at RWJF, we have devoted a great deal of effort toward understanding gun violence and how to prevent it. One well-known example of our work in this area is grantee Cure Violence, formerly Ceasefire.

Here’s how we describe the program:

Cure Violence uses a public health model to reduce gun violence. By treating violence as a learned behavior that can be “unlearned,” Cure Violence offers a solution to a problem that had been seen as unsolvable.”

Obviously, gun violence is one aspect of a much broader and disturbing picture. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that violence of all kinds is a plague in the United States, and from our description of Cure Violence, you can begin to understand our response to it. We approach violence as a critical public health issue, and that point of view determines our course of action.

A recent example of our work to curb violence further illustrates that particular approach. It revolves around the issue of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. That’s a wonky term, but it is meant to describe and encompass the horrors routinely visited upon children, mostly in the form of abuse and neglect. Many of these children live a nightmarish existence.

Some might say we’re swimming against the tide on this one, but we are, as my colleague Susan Promislo wrote in this space a few months ago, “witnessing a health revolution.” Childhood trauma was the subject of a recent summit in Philadelphia, a confab that garnered a great deal of national attention. Throughout the country, more and more experts are turning their expertise to the problem of ACEs, and many of them are doing pioneering work to understand the problem’s causes, document its long-term emotional and physical damage, and develop creative and effective long-term solutions.

From our work, we know that there are no simple answers to countering childhood trauma—or any other kind of violence. Just a few weeks after the Newtown tragedy, a report by Kevin Freking in the Huffington Post cited a particularly painful statistic: “The United States has about six violent deaths per 100,000 residents.”

I find myself pondering those damning numbers. Can we really do what we want to do? Can we really make the country a better, less violent place? Sometimes it seems impossible. But if there’s one thing I have come to know about this place, it’s that most of us are incredibly hopeful. You can’t work here and not be an optimist at heart. It would be easy to throw up our hands and give up, but no one here gives up.

If the tragedy of Newtown tells us anything, it’s this: When it comes to the challenge of violence in America, if we are to prevail, we must be guided by hope. And to paraphrase one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes: We can never, never give up.

Jeff Meade is a senior writer/producer for rwjf.org.



Think Safety as Thanksgiving—and Holiday Shopping—Approaches

Nov 27, 2013, 12:00 PM

file Photo Credit: tshein, via Flickr

Among the best pieces of advice people can look to today, the day before Thanksgiving, is a primer on safe food preparation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including a video on just how to stuff that turkey.

Additionally, when it comes to safety this holiday season, there are also ways to help keep yourself and your purchases safe as Thanksgiving morphs into Black Friday. Tech guru Shelly Palmer reported recently that, according to the New York City police department, 14 percent of crime in that city is linked to Apple computer products, while police in other cities note technology thefts of all kinds as the holiday shopping season gets into full swing. Apple is alerting buyers of the latest model iPhones that the devices now come with a security feature that requires a User ID and password to disable the "Find my Phone" feature, which helps police track down stolen phones. Tech experts say widespread use of the Apple feature can help deter theft--and possible harm--during a robbery.

Another thing to be aware of this shopping season, when people will be out and about on busy streets, is what's come to be known as the "Knockout Game," where the goal is knock a random person unconscious with a single punch. CNN and other news outlets have posted stories about reports of random violence in several U.S. and foreign cities, and at least one city is considering punishing juveniles found guilty of the attack as an adult rather than a child--which can mean years of jail time. However, The New York Times recently added its voice to the growing national discussion with a story questioning whether the "game" is in fact an urban myth, saying that it's possible these assaults are random acts of violence, and that even New York City police officials are still trying to determine the truth.

Nonetheless, while questions over the "game" remain, the assaults are very real. According to CNN, a police spokesman in Pittsburgh says people who appear distracted--such as those checking phones or listening to music through headphones--may be more vulnerable to attacks.

>>Bonus Link: The National Crime Prevention Council offers tips on safe holiday shopping, including shopping with a friend for added security.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Violence Prevention: Q&A with David Satcher

Nov 6, 2013, 10:21 AM

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David Satcher, MD, PhD, was a four-star admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and served as the 10th Assistant Secretary for Health and the 16th Surgeon General of the United States—at the same time. He was Surgeon General from 1998 through 2001, and under his tenure he tackled disparities in tobacco use and overall health equity, sexual health and—critically—youth violence.

Satcher was a key speaker in a recent American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting Town Hall Meeting on a global approach to preventing violence. NewPublicHealth spoke with Satcher about approaches to preventing violence as a public health issue.

NewPublicHealth: How do you take a public health approach to preventing violence?

David Satcher: When you take a public health approach, public health experts pose four questions:

  • First, what is the problem and what is the magnitude, the nature and distribution of the problem?
  • The second question is: what is the cause of the problem or the major risk factors for the problem?
  • The third question is: what can we do to reduce the risk of the problem?
  • And finally, how can we then implement that more broadly throughout society?

So, when we say we’re taking a public health approach, that’s what we’re talking about.

What we’ve tried to do and what we need more of is to really study the different causes of violence and violent episodes. They’re not all the same. I’ve dealt with a lot of the mass murders; I was Surgeon General when Columbine took place and the Surgeon General’s Report on Youth Violence in part evolved from that. And obviously there, as in most mass murders, we’re dealing with, among other things, mental health problems and easy access to weapons combined. I don’t think the same is necessarily true for gang violence, which causes thousands of deaths each year. With youth violence and gangs, I think there you’re dealing with a culture of insecurity where young people feel that in order to protect themselves they need to be members of gangs and they need to be armed.

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Violence: Can We End the Epidemic?

Nov 6, 2013, 10:16 AM

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“We live in a culture of violence,” said Larry Cohen, MSW, founder and executive director of the Prevention Institute, in a morning session on violence prevention at the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting, held this year in Boston, Mass.

“Just as air, water and soil affect our health, the social environment affects the spread of violence through our communities,” said Cohen.

One of the most important factors in the environment that influences the perpetration of violence is actually more violence. Basically, violence begets violence. It spreads like a disease.

“It’s like the flu,” said Gary Slutkin, MD, PhD, Founder and Executive Director of Cure Violence. “The greatest predictor of a case of the flu is a preceding case of the flu. It’s the same thing with violence. Violence is an infectious disease.”

Slutkin shared a study of one community that found that exposure to community violence in one form or another was associated with a 30 times increased risk of committing violence—but what was most striking is that statistic held true, even controlling for poverty, race, crowded housing and other factors that could have an impact on violence. The effect is also “dose dependent,” according to Dr. Slutkin. That is, the more violence you witness or experience, the more likely you are to perpetrate violence.

The good news is that “we know how to prevent epidemics,” said Slutkin. “We need to recognize that this is a preventable problem. We need to build a movement,” agreed Cohen.

Cure Violence focuses on the very same steps used to prevent the spread of infectious disease in their work to help prevent the spread of violence:

  1. Detect and interrupt the transmission of violence, by anticipating where violence might occur.
  2. Change the behavior of those most at risk for spreading violence.
  3. Change community norms to discourage the use of violence as an acceptable and even encouraged way to handle conflict.

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‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’: Early Life Events that Can Damage our Adult Health

Sep 30, 2013, 4:21 PM

“Thanks to decades of neuroscience research on brain development, adversity and toxic stress, we now understand how a child who is exposed to violence, or neglect, or homelessness at an early age may develop behavioral and physical health problems later in life,” said Jane Lowe, Senior Adviser for Program Development at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). “We can now use this rapidly evolving knowledge to create real-world solutions.”

RWJF.org recently pulled together a collection of resources on “adverse childhood experiences”—how common they are and what they can mean for the adults those traumatized children become. The website includes an infographic that illustrates the subject:

NewPublicHealth has previously written about the importance of addressing and changing youth violence, so that these behaviors don’t become even more severe—and more damaging—while spreading from act to act and person to person. In a Q&A, RWJF Director Kristin Schubert, MPH, spoke about the Foundation’s approach to the issue of violence prevention and strategies in the field that are working to create change.

“We know that the child who was abused is that much more likely to be a victim or perpetrator of bullying a few years down the line, and then is that much more likely to be a victim or perpetrator of dating violence a few years later in high school, and then is much more likely to be a part of more family violence later on. There’s no form of violence that stands alone,” she said. “It’s a multigenerational phenomenon that is passed down.

“This context is so essential—in considering why someone engages in violent behavior, it’s important to recognize that it’s not just the ‘bad apple,’ it’s not the person. It’s the behavior. As Gary Slutkin of CeaseFire says, ‘Violence is a learned behavior.’”

Schubert pointed to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which found that the more “adverse” events a child faces in their youth—from maltreatment to neglect to abuse to witnessing violence—the more likely they are to have health problems later in life. That includes hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

>>Read the full NewPublicHealth interview.

>>Read more about Adverse Childhood Experiences.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Address Toxic Stress in Vulnerable Children and Families for a Healthier America

Jun 21, 2013, 1:43 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Susan Dentzer

“Speed kills,” warns the traditional highway sign about the dangers of haste and traffic deaths. Now, we know that stress kills, too.

Toxic stress, at any rate. The human body’s response to normal amounts of stress—say, a bad day at the office—is likely to be brief increases in the heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. But a toxic stress response, stemming from exposure to a major shock or prolonged adversity such as physical or emotional abuse, can wreak far more havoc.         

In children, science now shows that toxic stress can disrupt the developing brain and organ systems. The accumulated lifelong toll of stress-related hormones sharply raises the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood, ranging from heart disease and diabetes to depression and atherosclerosis.

Thus, the message from a panel of experts to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America was at once simple and challenging: Create a healthier environment for—and increase coping mechanisms and resilience in—the nation’s most vulnerable and stress-ridden children and families.

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Trumping ACEs: Building Resilience and Better Health in Kids and Families Experiencing Trauma

Jun 19, 2013, 4:18 PM, Posted by Susan Promislo

ACEs Mobile

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