January 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

Stressful childhood tied to future health risks

Many families in Detroit must cope with the slaying of a family member. Marcel Jackson was killed while working as a security guard, leaving behind, from left, Tarik, 13; wife Hollie holding Aaliyah, 2; Jala, 16; Najidah, 18; Tamia, 13; and Gwendolyn, 7. (Photos by Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Jala Jackson is always looking over her shoulder — even more since her father, Marcel Jackson, was fatally shot while on duty as a security officer on June 20, 2012.

Safety officers at Renaissance High School tell the 16-year-old and other students to walk in groups because there are so many robberies in the neighborhood. When she got her driver’s license, Jala’s mother warned her to keep an eye on her side mirror at red lights, in case a carjacker creeps up.

“We have this neighborhood park and sometimes I go there with my friends,” Jala said. “We usually play around, but there’s a lot of bad people on the block. You just never know if something bad happens there.”

Living in unsafe or poor neighborhoods can be stressful for children — stress that for some children is compounded by trauma. A growing body of research shows kids who grow up under constant stress face future health risks, including higher rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Hollie Jackson, 40, takes her six children to the family grieving program at Greater Grace Temple. On Monday nights, Jala; her sister Najidah, 18; twins Tamia and Tarik, 13; and Gwendolyn, 7, participate in group activities and can speak to counselors and other kids who have lost a loved one. Baby Aaliyah, 2, colors and sings.

Najidah also participated in Open Arms, a program run by St. John Providence Health System that provides group grief support and counseling for children in Detroit Public Schools. Open Arms runs a group for families once a week at Connor Creek Community Center, and one night Najidah brought her whole family.

“Each night, I dream about my dad,” Gwendolyn said. “It seems like I’m in heaven, and I say, ‘Where am I?’ And then an angel appears and says, ‘You’re in heaven.’ And then I said, ‘How’d I get in heaven?’ And he said ‘Jesus took you here.’ ”

Hollie was a homemaker and Marcel, 38, supplemented income from his full-time job as a security guard at Walgreens by working security for Detroit nightclubs. Marcel Jackson was a key member of the crime-fighting Detroit 300 community group. He was gunned down outside Pandemonium Night Club, allegedly by a patron who was angry about being ejected.

“Moving out of Detroit was one of our goals. We seen how crime was really getting bad, and we said ‘It’s time to go,’ ” Hollie said. “It just didn’t happen fast enough. Right now, I just kind of feel stuck with him not being here. I have to start over again.”

Dr. Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and an expert on the effects of toxic stress on children, said exposure to early adversity can lead to long-term impacts on their brain and biological development, and their health. The earlier such adversity is removed from a child’s life, the greater the likelihood of recovery.

“(The effect) depends on things like the age of the child, the resources available to the family, if it’s a single event or sort of a constellation of chronic stress,” Nelson said. “The more stressful experiences you have growing up, the worse the outcome. So it’s not any single bad thing, it’s the accumulation of multiple bad things.

“Take a child born two months prematurely into a single-parent household that doesn’t have a lot of resources. Mom might have a substance abuse problem, then there’s neighborhood violence. All those things sort of conspire to pull the rug out from underneath the kids.”

A growing body of research has shown that stress can become so toxic that it affects even the body’s cells. Cells contain chromosomes, twisted threads that embed all genetic information. Tacked onto the end of each chromosome is a repetitive sequence of DNA called a telomere, which gets shorter each time a cell replicates.

Studies have linked chronic stress with the shortening of telomeres. And, in turn, shortened telomeres are associated with the onset of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other age-related diseases.

Racial disparity also may be a factor. A University of Maryland study released this month found that African-American men who reported experiencing racism, and who had the strongest bias toward their own racial group, had telomeres that were biologically 1.4 to 2.8 years older than those of black men who reported the lowest levels of discrimination and least racial bias.

According to Nelson, kids who grow up with chronic stress are more prone to depression and anxiety, and have increased risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Severe stress and trauma also can harm learningand memory.

Nelson said early intervention is the key to minimizing the long-term impacts of chronic stress or trauma on children’s health. One example of an effective program, he said, is the Nurse Family Partnership. Nurses meet regularly with new moms to offer advice and support. Parenting education and programs that provide cash assistance to families with young children are also known to reduce the negative impacts of stress on children, Nelson said.

Najidah participated with other kids in an Open Arms grieving support group held during the school day at Old Redford Preparatory High School, the Detroit charter school she attends.

“We help (children) to communicate in ways that they can’t verbalize,” said Karen Gray-Sheffield, director of St. John Providence Community Health. “Through activities, play therapy, we can help them learn more about their feelings, remember their loved ones in a positive way.

“Younger children don’t always understand the permanence of death, so they feel the person is going to come back. We can’t help them cognitively grow up too fast, but we can explain the cycle of life, how trees and leaves die, things that might not be totally connected to the human aspect of it. Flowers grow, flowers also die.”

Aaliyah Jackson hugs her sister, Gwendolyn, who wears a T-shirt in memory ... (Max Ortiz)
Hollie Jackson, center, prepares dinner with daughters Jala, left, and ...