5 Reasons Investing in Violence Prevention is Critical to Building a Culture of Health in America

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is from Maisha Simmons, program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a major funder of Cure Violence. You can follow her on Twitter at @mzsimmons.

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to attend an annual Cure Violence meeting for partner sites. In one really special part of the meeting, we had the chance to see artwork that depicted a neighborhood without violence — a neighborhood that embodied a culture of health.

One drawing illustrated a neighborhood that was clean. Children were playing outside while senior citizens were sitting on a bench reading the newspaper. Another picture showed thriving local businesses and a police officer escorting a woman across the street. One image showed a loving couple walking arm and arm and a young man riding his bike. In that one, a neighborhood billboard indicated that there had been 621 days without a shooting.

I took that poster home and hung in my office here at RWJF. I often think about it when I reflect on a question we’ve been asking ourselves a lot recently around here:

“What does it mean to build a culture of health?”

In her annual message to the field, our President, Risa Lavizzo Mourey, proposed this answer to that bold question:

“There is no single definition, which means when America ultimately achieves a culture of health it will be as multifaceted as the population it serves…It may mean creating neighborhoods where moms can feel comfortable letting their kids walk to school, play outside, and go to a nearby grocery store stocked with fresh and healthy choices.”

She goes on to speak specifically about violence and its impact on the culture of health.

“We cannot call ourselves a healthy nation if we continue to be a violent one. Violence is a serious health issue that can alter and compromise the strength of a community and damage the lives of individuals forever.”

It made me realize that our work to prevent violence here at RWJF, by investing in solutions like Cure Violence, is some of the most critical work we’re doing to help build a culture of health in our community, your community and communities across the United States.

Here’s why investing in violence prevention is so important:

1. A sense of safety is essential to a culture of health.

Feeling and being safe is a fundamental prerequisite to being healthy.  When people, especially children, are exposed to violence, the trauma produces toxic levels of stress and anxiety, making it difficult to feel any sense of safety.

2. Violence is contagious.

We all know the expression “violence begets violence.” A colleague of mine, Martha Davis, often says that “hurt people hurt people.” Often the violence and the hurt starts in the home and spreads outward into neighborhoods.

3. Violence is too often a symptom of health disparity.

Research shows that exposure to violence blocks the normal development of children’s brains and bodies. Scientists are finding that extreme poverty mimics those same effects, and — like violence itself — creates the conditions that make violence, maltreatment and illness even more common.

4. To prevent violence, we have to understand it better. 

We know violence is toxic to children, families and communities. We don’t know enough yet about how different types of violence spread or affect each other. But scientific fields like epidemiology, brain science, and behavioral economics make it possible to study violence and find the breakthroughs we need like never before.

5. The solutions are out there. We just have to find them. 

There is a lot we don’t know about what it takes to prevent violence. But there is a lot we do know as well. Cure Violence is one strategy that has been tested and has shown very promising results. Another example is a program in New Jersey that trained health care providers to identify, treat and refer families for domestic violence. We need to get better at finding those solutions that do work and sharing them with the people who can put them to work.

The poster in my office reminds me just how urgent this work is. Every day we hold violence at bay.  Every child we protect. Every solution we uncover. Every new person who joins the movement to prevent violence. Each of them weakens the hold that violence in our lives and neighborhoods. Each of them helps to build a culture where everyone has the opportunity to be healthy.