Oakland Teen Overcomes Post-Traumatic Stress, Heads To College
(KPIX 5) — When we think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder we think of our soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. But doctors are seeing an entirely different group of Americans with PTSD who are also constantly exposed to violence: inner city kids.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 30% of them suffer some form of it – a higher rate than soldiers. Donza Pitre may be one of the few who was actually treated for it, after she was diagnosed at about 13 years of age.
Last year in Oakland, there were 90 murders, almost half of them clustered in East Oakland, where Donza grew up. But the first trauma in her life happened before she was born, when her father was shot and killed. “I never got to meet my father,” she said, “and I never was there when it happened but it still really affects me and my family.”
Donza and her single mom and brother and sister have grown up poor, often hearing gunshots at night. “My neighborhood is really really affecting me,” she said. “I have to ride on a bus that was shot at twice in the last month.”
But the PTSD surfaced dramatically for Donza, after her father’s best friend sexually-assaulted her and told her not to tell anyone. “I was really, really depressed. Just imagine a 13-year-old holding on to that for a while and not saying anything. You know, that was my dad’s best friend. It was heartbreaking for me.”
But it broke more than her heart. She couldn’t study or focus on anything. “I locked myself in my room. I like, kept to myself. I acted real funny from the on. I didn’t act the same…I just gave up.”
At College Track, the non-profit where she went for tutoring regularly, the staff noticed something was wrong. Program Director Shria Tomlinson – who knew Donza as a feisty, outspoken teenager – watched her become progressively more withdrawn, sometimes sitting with a blank stare. There was an inconsistency, said Shria, “to see her so engaged at some times at the center and then other times to be so withdrawn, or to be angry or to look unsettled.”
Finally, it became overwhelming that Donza knew she needed help and she told her mom who immediately called the police. It turned out the suspect was already in jail on other charges and had a prior conviction of felony child molestation.
But for Donza, the most important thing was being diagnosed with PTSD, and getting counseling through the California Victims Compensation Program.
“It was really hard, she said. “It was a lot of tears, a lot of courage, but talking about it, it can help you. Because when you leave it inside, it can hurt you and that’s what it did to me… I feel like if you don’t talk about it, it can be dangerous. It can really hurt you.” She learned it was not because of anything she did wrong. ‘I’ve learned not to be ashamed of it,” she said. It’s not something that should have happened to me. It was wrong.”
The CDC reports 60% of inner city kids have witnessed violence within the previous year. That may be as high as 90% based on other published reports and there is no “Post” in PTSD for these kids because they never leave the combat zone.
Last year, Harvard doctors came up with a new term for the type of PTSD affecting this group: “Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”, because these kids suffer trauma on top of trauma, layering the problem over time, and most go untreated.
But for Donza, the counseling made all the difference.
At her tutoring center, Shria Tomlinson could see it,”She started to open up. She started to become engaged again. She started to set goals, to speak positively about herself…and talk about ‘when I go to college’ instead of ‘if I go to college.'”
It was fortunate that she got the counseling before she had to testify in court. “You’re on the stand, you’re telling a story about something that happened, and the person who did it is right there. Then you have a lawyer attacking you. I feel like that was the most horrible thing that happened in the whole process,” Donza said. Then after pausing a moment, she added thoughtfully, “But it’s over. I got help. I got counseling.” I asked her if she feels like she is healing, and she said, “yes, and its still a process. This stuff- it’s like a lifelong process.”
The defendant plead no contest and was sentenced 6 years. Donza went to the sentencing to tell him how it had affected her and her teacher accompanied her. “I was blown away,” said Sonia Hanzra. “I couldn’t believe she could go up there and sound so confident. So incredibly confident.”
Hanzra remembers the courtroom becoming quite emotional but Donza kept going. “I remember she even talked about her goals, like ‘even though you did this to me, I’m still set on going to college and becoming a lawyer and helping other young women … even though this horrible thing has happened to me, I’m going to stay focused on what I need to do to make my life successful.'”
The idea of studying law came to Donza in the courtroom as she was being cross-examined by the defense attorney. College, much less law school, used to be just a dream and very well might have remained so, had she not spoken up and gotten help. “She’s very unusual,” said Hanzra. “To be able to have that strength and the ability to move on like that so quickly. That is very, very unusual.”
“Talking about it, writing about it, that is what changed my life,” said Donza. The whole world is opening up to her now. After she was accepted into Students Rising Above she attended a retreat and was convinced to sing. It was the first time she’d ever sang in public, and when she was done, everyone was in tears. So SRA paid for a singing coach to make a tape for her to send with her college applications.
As of March 2014, Donza Pitre has already been accepted to five colleges. Shria Tomlinson aptly said, “This is life changing. This is going to change the trajectory of her life. This is going to change her life path.”