By Missy Wilkinson | | February 8, 2022

Nadia Sanchez was relaxing in her Gentilly home when she heard what she thought was her 11-year-old sister and 12-year-old brother roughhousing in the front yard. She went outside and witnessed her mother being killed.

A carjacker had stolen Jeannot Plessy’s SUV and run over her while her children looked on. When Sanchez’s husband tried to intervene, the carjacker dragged him 60 feet, causing a traumatic brain injury.

“It felt surreal, like it was a joke. My brain couldn’t even process what I was seeing,” Sanchez said. “Three years later, there are some days I still can’t believe this happened to Mom. I can’t believe this is our life.”

Such shocking scenes are reality for a growing number of New Orleanians as violent crime surges in the city. In the first month of 2022, homicides were up 120% compared to the same period in 2021; shootings were up 233%; and carjackings were up 400%, according to data compiled by the Metropolitan Crime Commission. The numbers mirror national trends, and they spurred Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Wednesday to describe the bloodshed as “terrorism … happening on our streets.”

The toll of crime

Each violent crime leaves a penumbra of sufferers: the victim’s relatives, friends, co-workers and larger community. But when the police tape comes down from the crime scene and the news media moves on, survivors must map the dark contours of their new realities largely on their own, often amid physical injuries, legal battles and unforeseen expenses — plus the challenges of everyday life — all with brains affected by trauma.

“In the aftermath of losing my mom, I had a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, and I was responsible for my brother and sister. I was very, very overwhelmed,” said Sanchez, who was 31 when her mother was killed. “I was dealing with my own mental health and trauma, but outside of that, what are the kids eating for dinner?”

Asking for help is critical, even though the urge to isolate and avoid talking or thinking about the crime is a common response, said Dr. Erika Rajo, a clinical psychiatrist who leads the Trauma Recovery Clinic at University Medical Center.

“While that (withdrawal) is normal and understandable, avoidance can actually lead to things like PTSD down the road, or a worsening, stronger, intense reaction to the trauma,” Rajo said. “Not only is there avoidance, but there’s a sense of wanting to protect your loved ones from your own distress and not add to their plate.”

PTSD and the crime surge

Sanchez received cognitive behavioral therapy at University Medical Center, which makes the service available to anyone who has lost a loved one to homicide or experienced a traumatic injury such as a gunshot wound or stabbing.

Without treatment, 20% to 30% of people who experience a traumatic injury go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, Rajo said, and untreated PTSD is associated with both crime and violent trauma recidivism.

PTSD is a mood disorder that arises in response to a life-threatening event. It is characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance and the urge to avoid talking about the event, among other symptoms. Although those symptoms are a normal reaction to trauma, they can develop into PTSD or depression if they persist longer than a month.

“Untreated trauma and PTSD is driving the crime surge,” Rajo said. “I think back to the amount of people impacted by Hurricane Katrina who didn’t have access to mental health treatment and still are suffering from PTSD from that community trauma, even if they were infants at the time. Now it’s manifesting in other ways because they’re operating out of a survival mode.”

How to break the cycle

Rajo said treating PTSD is more than an act of self-care; it’s also a crime prevention tactic.

“Even though it’s a hard step to take to open up to someone and talk about it, that has an immense healing effect on your psyche,” Rajo said. “My advice would be not to just hold it in, push it down and try to keep going or shove it under the rug. Really honor your feelings and talk to someone.”

The someone can be a professional, a support group or a friend or relative.

For Khanh Nguyen-Dufour, whose father, Long Van Nguyen, was killed in a hit-and-run wreck in August, family support made a tremendous difference.

“We have this amazing tribe, and we get together quite a bit,” Nguyen-Dufour said. “I think it’s truly the key to getting through this together. It really is helpful to be surrounded by love and not to be bitter toward the suspect or toward NOPD or anyone.”

The person who killed Nguyen-Dufour’s father remains at large. Jontrell Robinson, who killed Sanchez’s mother, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and carjacking in 2020, but that did little for Sanchez’s mental health.

“Sending someone to prison at 17 years old doesn’t give me any joy,” Sanchez said. “It doesn’t give me closure.”

Sanchez has found a degree of healing in launching the nonprofit Love Your Neighbor NOLA, which provides resources for survivors of violent crime and distributes baby supplies in New Orleans East. She said people often don’t see the connection between family support and violent crime, but she thinks access to community resources is often the missing link.

Rajo thinks that what isn’t healed in one generation is passed on to the next.

“We can’t prevent bad things from happening, but we can provide support and resources to help people move forward and heal, so it doesn’t lead to more bad things happening,” Rajo said.