The Costs Of Trauma

by Alizah Salario

“Traumatic” is a word I throw around. I’m traumatized, I texted my sister after spilling coffee on my laptop and learning the hefty cost of replacing the motherboard. I’m having a traumatic, emotionally draining day, I tell my fiancé when I’m working on deadline. The other day I almost got doored while biking — so traumatic, obviously.

My diction is careless. These aren’t traumas. They’re frustrations or inconveniences. I use the word because it’s adjacent to truth. Traumas are a type of disruption, and disruption of any sort takes a toll. I use trauma as an umbrella term to express a moment of paralysis, overwhelming stress, the body’s instinctual reaction to danger manifest in rubbery legs and pounding heart.

The scene of coffee spilling on my keyboard replaying over and over is distracting and cringeworthy, but it does not shut me down, or send my nervous system into overdrive. The loss is replaceable, I’m intact, the moment passes. The toll is pocket change, all things considered.

But what about the moments that permanently interrupt our lives? What about real traumas, the ones that remain on emotional repeat, compromising not just minutes, but years? What do those costs us?

The short answer is, a lot.

Let’s start with the costs we can measure. 9/11 cost the economy 143,000 jobs a month and $2.8 billion in lost wages in the three months after the attack. The actual cost of Hurricane Katrina’s damage was somewhere between $96-$125 billion, although when taking into account the total economic loss, estimates run as high as $250 billion. Personal traumas don’t come cheap, either: Uninsured women pay anywhere between $4,000 and $9,000 to cover the cost of a miscarriage.

But these figures fall far short of the true cost of trauma. That’s why when looking at the actual cost of a catastrophe, economists measure both direct costs, the dollars spent directly related to the crisis, and the indirect costs, or the expenses that aren’t directly traceable to the crisis. If we think of the event as a stone dropping in water, the indirect costs — things like pain, suffering and peace of mind — are the outermost ripples. And we see the ripples of trauma extending further and further when it comes to gun violence.

For instance, take this analysis on the true cost of gun violence from Mother Jones. Here’s what they found about direct and indirect costs:

The first is direct: Every time a bullet hits somebody, expenses can include emergency services, police investigations, and long-term medical and mental-health care, as well as court and prison costs. About 87 percent of these costs fall on taxpayers. The second category consists of indirect costs: Factors here include lost income, losses to employers, and impact on quality of life, which Miller bases on amounts that juries award for pain and suffering to victims of wrongful injury and death.

In collaboration with Miller, Mother Jones crunched data from 2012 and found that the annual cost of gun violence in America exceeds $229 billion. Direct costs account for $8.6 billion — including long-term prison costs for people who commit assault and homicide using guns, which at $5.2 billion a year is the largest direct expense. Even before accounting for the more intangible costs of the violence, in other words, the average cost to taxpayers for a single gun homicide in America is nearly $400,000. And we pay for 32 of them every single day.

So about those intangible costs: How do we calculate them? How do you measure not just pain and suffering, but the contributions the slain might have made to society? How much human and social capital — skills, talents and passions — was squandered? I’m not going to attempt a fraught moral calculus here. I do not want to rank one person’s suffering over another’s. But as someone who has experienced a school shooting, I find it illuminating to look at how we describe the intangible costs of trauma. Take the words of a grieving father who lost his daughter Mary in the Virginia Tech shooting, for example:

“Mary’s a hole,” he said. Life goes on, with Boy Scouts and swim practice and homework, but “everything else flows around” the hole, “a space that doesn’t close up.” He can’t stand it when people talk about moving on. “You can go forward,” Mr. Read said, “but you cannot move on.”

This grieving father’s intangible cost is different than the kindergarten teacher for whom a routine classroom lockdown drill became a chilling rehearsal for death:

Maybe that moment I stood alone in my classroom was when I was closest to the truth. In 13 minutes, according to my gruesome and involuntary mental calculus, a single gunman with his effortlessly obtained XM15-E2S rifle and 26 rounds in each of two additional magazines could potentially kill 78 of us. Even considering the time it takes to calmly reload.

Instead of controlling guns and inconveniencing those who would use them, we are rounding up and silencing a generation of schoolchildren, and terrifying those who care for them. We are giving away precious time to teach and learn while we cower in fear.

And this teacher’s intangible cost isn’t the same as that of a mother living in the inner city who suffers from PTSD after she was shot in the head in front of her children:

Over the past 20 years, medical researchers have found new ways to quantify the effects of the relentless violence on America’s inner cities. They surveyed residents who had been exposed to violence in cities such as Detroit and Baltimore and noticed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): nightmares, obsessive thoughts, a constant sense of danger. In a series of federally funded studies in Atlanta, researchers interviewed more than 8,000 inner city residents, most of them African-American. … Roughly 30 percent of respondents had had symptoms consistent with PTSD — a rate as high or higher than that of veterans of wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

We can’t put a dollar figure on abstracts like “a space that doesn’t close up,” or “precious teaching time spent cowering in fear,” or “living with a constant sense of danger,” but we can factor them into a broader understanding of intangible costs. But not until we stop minimizing the victims of trauma themselves

Trauma is considered a psycho-biological event, which basically means it’s like a squatter in the body. It won’t leave just because you ask it to. Trauma, particularly related to gun violence, lives not only in those who directly experience it. Gun violence has infested every cell of our body politic. So what if we starting thinking of the costs of gun violence not as neatly itemized dollar amounts, but as a toll stopping us in our tracks? We pay tolls repeatedly, and sometimes unexpectedly.

The root of the word “trauma” comes from “wound.” We have hospitals to treat physical wounds, and yet we don’t give our nation the time or space to heal from emotional wounds. As a result, we hemorrhage far more than dollars. The costs of trauma are vast, and far greater than we can measure.

The Roundup takes a glass half full approach to personal and behavioral finance. In her columns, Alizah examines the biases, assumptions and emotions we often unknowingly attach to money. And yes, she always rounds up.

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