When you move to a new city, you do your research.
You look up living costs and if you have children you do research on schools in the area. You also check a city’s crime rate – as I did when I first moved to Merced.
What I found was a real estate report of the top 100 most dangerous cities in the nation. Merced was on the list. It ranked among the top 10 most violent cities in California.
Of course, I spared my parents this small detail. I chose not to add worries to my concerned parents who were already having a hard time seeing their only daughter leave the nest.
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I assured them I would be safe. And for the most part, I do feel safe.
But this is not an opinion all residents share. Last year, Merced County recorded its highest number of homicides at 32, with 14 of them in the city of Merced.
Just Friday morning police reported another homicide – the 18th in the county so far this year.
With this in mind, it is not hard to understand why safety is a concern for many.
So why am I writing about crime in a health column? Because the two are more connected than one would like to think.
The simplest way to put it – violence impacts one’s health: mental and physical.
I think most would realize that violent acts affect the well-being of targets and witnesses. But even people who are not directly involved, who just happen to live in violent neighborhoods, can be affected. Hearing gunshots at night and waking up to bullet casings near one’s front yard, as I have heard from residents, clearly causes fear and concern.
Medical researchers across the nation have spent years studying the health consequences of violence, and have connected it to post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, among other conditions.
Later this month, the Merced Sun-Star will release a three-part series in which I will explore this very issue: How is Merced’s street violence affecting residents’ well-being? I’ve spent the past few weeks meeting with Merced County residents who have in one way or another become enwrapped in the problem.
Most have lost someone to gang violence, others once took part in a violent crime, and some are actively looking for a solution. Some have been diagnosed with PTSD. Others have never sought professional help, even though they may suspect they could benefit from counseling.
Some have had suicidal thoughts. Some have trouble eating and sleeping. Others are the product of the cycle of violence. And others feel alone in their pain.
This undertaking is part of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. As part of the program, I attended a five-day conference of workshops and brainstorming sessions.
During one of the workshops, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Tony Iton, senior vice president for Healthy Communities at the California Endowment, speak for the second time. I had heard him speak once before at this year’s Children Summit in Merced.
During his presentations, Iton talked about health equity and introduced me to a very interesting point, one that stuck: ZIP codes matter. In other words, where a person is born, raised, lives and works shapes their health.
Education, income, access to health care and violence, among many other socio-economic factors, are all considered determinants of health. But it’s not only mental health that is affected. These factors also play a role in the development of chronic diseases and a number of other medical conditions.
So is Merced’s violence creating unhealthy communities? That’s the discussion I plan to dive into, and one I hope readers will follow.
I am open to questions and suggestions. If you are a victim of violent crime in Merced County and wish to share, please feel free to reach out.