Decoding the Violence of Neighborhoods

Prolonged exposure to violence can have profound health implications, affecting individuals and generations.

Read Time: 3 minutes


For too many children the world is steeped in violence. The U.S Department of Justice reports that 60% of children are exposed to violence, crime, or abuse at home or in their community. And two out of three experience more than one type of violence. This constant exposure has profound public health implications, affecting individuals and generations.

Researchers are working to understand the patterns and impacts of community violence exposure. Gabriela Suarez and colleagues examined how neighborhood disadvantage—determined by factors like neighbors’ education, employment, income, and poverty levels—relates to brain function in the amygdala, a region central to processing emotions and reacting to threats. In a sample of 708 adolescent twins, they found exposure to community violence—witnessing physical altercations or even hearing about violent events—was associated with heightened amygdala reactivity. The heightened reactivity was observed when these adolescents were shown pictures of threatening facial expressions in a laboratory. Children living in more disadvantaged neighborhoods reported more frequent violence exposure, and those reporting higher exposure exhibited greater amygdala reactivity to threat.

Sharon Lambert and colleagues focused on patterns of community violence exposure in a sample of 543 African American middle schoolers from Baltimore. They identified two distinct exposure patterns–high exposure and low exposure. Importantly, 80% of youth had relatively constant exposure to violence across middle school. The researchers found that these students with high exposure displayed more depression and impulsivity compared to those with consistently low exposure.

Community-level interventions can help curb neighborhood violence.

The constant overexposure to violence can put the amygdala on high alert, like an alarm that never stops ringing. Over time, this can lead to serious mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and stress disorders. The impacts go beyond personal health, contributing to higher health care expenses, loss of productivity, and increased inequality across society.

However, research also points to potential intervention. Suarez’s study highlighted the protective role of nurturing parenting. For youth who reported their parents as highly nurturing, living in a disadvantaged neighborhood did not result in an increased exposure to community violence. And for those who were exposed, nurturing parenting decreased the link between violence exposure and heightened amygdala reactivity. These findings suggest that strengthening family support systems could be a key public health strategy to help youth navigate the challenges of living in violent neighborhoods.

Community-level interventions can help curb neighborhood violence. Initiatives like UNITY, a violence prevention effort in cities across the U.S., have shown promising results. UNITY employs strategies, such as street outreach to connect with high-risk youth for added support, community mobilization to engage residents in creating safer neighborhoods, and providing mentoring, job training, and mental health counseling to young people living in these risky environments. Suarez and Lamberts’ research suggests that investing in these types of mental health resources, parental education programs, and community development efforts could help the daily lives of many children.