Mental Health Aspects of Economic Downturn

By Sandy K. Johnson

The city of Milwaukee kept appearing at the bottom of lists of the “worst.” Editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel assigned economics reporter John Schmid to get to the root of the city’s decline.

Behind the economic statistics, what Schmid found was people whose lives were adversely affected by generations of poverty “like a slow-motion shock wave.” His work, titled “A Time To Heal,” won the National Press Foundation’s Carolyn C. Mattingly Award for Mental Health Reporting.

Schmid’s reporting slowly evolved from economics to neuroscience as he sought to explain a phenomenon shared with other post-industrial cities such as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia. The concentration of poverty begat a host of ills: depression, homelessness, addiction, violence, sexual abuse, incarceration and suicide.

He reported on PTSD symptoms in children and the physical impact it has on brain development. He found state and local data on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), a simple quiz on a scale of 1-10 that quantifies heart-wrenching trauma. (Examples: When you were growing up, did a parent or adult in the house beat you? Beat each other? Did any of them verbally or sexually abuse you? Emotionally ignore you? Were any of them alcoholics? Drug users? Incarcerated? Mentally ill?)

Schmid also found resilience and recovery. Alisha Fox, who scored a 9 on the ACE test, overcame a series of childhood traumas and is working on a degree to become a therapist. Fox’s story drew the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who grew up poor and abused in Milwaukee. Winfrey produced a segment for CBS’ “60 Minutes” that built on Schmid’s work.

He was also invited to present his findings to the Chicago Federal Reserve and the Marquette University Law School. Schmid credits a Marquette fellowship through the school’s Sheldon B. Lubar Fund for Public Policy Research for giving him the time to focus on the project.

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