LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The overall crime rate has dropped during the pandemic. But unfortunately, gun violence has not. Some cities, like Chicago and Dallas, are even reporting surges. In St. Louis, at least 25 children have been shot this year, and 10 of them have died. Cara Anthony with Kaiser Health News has been investigating how young people in St. Louis are affected by gun violence and what they do to cope.
CARA ANTHONY, BYLINE: Long before the coronavirus pandemic pushed us all the quarantine at home, the Hicks family had their own version of sheltering in place from gun violence. When they hear gunshots outside, everyone hides in the dark. Thirteen-year-old Anajah says she and her siblings practice regularly.
ANAJAH HICKS: We turn the TV down. We turn the lights off, and we hurry up and get down on the ground.
ANTHONY: At their apartment in East St. Louis, Ill., mom Kianna Hicks tells the kids to get ready. Then their grandmother claps her hands to simulate the sound of gunfire.
GLORIA HICKS: Like shots fired (imitating gunshot sounds). What would you do?
KIANNA HICKS: Get on the ground. Everybody.
G HICKS: OK, I'm going to make the noise (clapping).
K HICKS: And that's how it's done.
ANTHONY: All four children stay flat on the floor, heads down until their mother tells them that it's OK to get up. Hicks drills the kids a few times a month. And this summer, she wants to make sure they're ready because they could be spending more time in the house. Her two boys usually do football camp. It's always been a way to keep them out of harm's way if street violence escalates over the summer. But they may not have football this year because of coronavirus restrictions.
MARIAH: I'm one of those people that have, like, bad anxiety about stuff like that.
ANTHONY: Mariah lives just across the Mississippi in north St. Louis. She's 16, and we're only using her first name so she can speak freely about growing up in a violent neighborhood.
MARIAH: It was just so much gunshots. I couldn't even sleep. It was awful.
ANTHONY: Mariah also has a safety strategy for what to do when bullets fly, but she still has a difficult time coping when she hears the sounds of violence. Last winter, she was babysitting her little cousins when...
MARIAH: All of a sudden, I heard the loudest gunshots I've ever heard in my life. My ears rang. It couldn't have been no further than, like, my doorstep. I immediately dropped to the floor, and then in a split second, the second thing that ran through my head is, oh, my God, the kids. I just see, like, the kids, like, in a corner room, and they're just, like, down there. Anaya (ph) is 6. Her brother is 3. And Anaya is just telling him, like, no, you have to stay down. You can't move, Junior (ph). Like, stop playing around. This is serious. Like, mama said if I hear a big noise, don't move.
ANTHONY: Everyone walked away physically OK that day, but later that night, Mariah pulled out strands of her hair to relieve the stress. For her, the sound of gunfire is an anxiety trigger that she worked hard to manage. That's why LeKesha Davis encourages parents to also teach their kids how to cope after a shooting. She says getting on the floor only explains...
LEKESHA DAVIS: ...How they're maintaining their physical safety, but no one's addressing the emotional and the mental toll that this takes on individuals.
ANTHONY: Davis heads up one of the few mental health agencies for kids in St. Louis. For 20 years, she's been working with children who have experienced trauma.
DAVIS: Can you imagine as a child you are sleeping, you know, no care in the world as you sleep and being jarred out of your sleep to get under the bed and hide?
ANTHONY: That kind of exposure to violence qualifies as an adverse childhood experience. Research shows that too many of these experiences can affect a child for the rest of her life. Davis says that kids who experience violence or witness it frequently are more likely to have chronic health issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes and depression as adults.
DAVIS: Our brain is impacted by this fight or flight response. That's supposed to happen in rare instances, you know? But when you're having them happen every single day, you're having these chemicals released in the brain on a daily basis. How does that affect you as you get older?
ANTHONY: But future health problems are hard to think about when you're just trying to survive. That's why Mariah's mom, Eisha Taylor, tries to minimize the violence around them.
EISHA TAYLOR: You have to strive to overcome it. There's absolutely nothing I can do about it. You know what I mean? And I don't harp on it.
ANTHONY: She's just trying to teach her daughter to be resilient. For NPR News, I'm Cara Anthony in St. Louis.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story comes from a collaboration between NPR, St. Louis Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.
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