David Pate standing on a Milwaukee street.

The effects of toxic stress

When David Pate talks about toxic stress, he means something quite different from how stress is commonly perceived.

This isn’t a really bad day at work or even a two-week-long health crisis. Toxic stress is chronic, unmitigated stress, experienced week after week, year after year, and it affects behavior, learning and health for a lifetime.

For 20 years, Pate has talked to hundreds of black men in America to explore the largely unappreciated circumstances that impact them. And he’s concluded that the array of factors affecting black men matches the toxic stress definition.

The Helen Bader School of Social Welfare associate professor recently co-authored a study with James Topitzes showing that “adverse childhood experiences” affected black men’s ability to acquire and retain jobs. Those experiences include physical and emotional abuse, neglect and exposure to drug abuse.

“If you’ve had any of these adverse childhood experiences – poverty, violence,” Pate says, “it’s going to affect your health. Your health is going to affect your education, which is going to affect your employment, which is going to affect whether or not you are incarcerated.”

When Pate interviews people for his research, he focuses on connecting the dots between where they are now and what factors played a role in reaching that point.

“I look for the markers in life that might affect your later life,” Pate says. “If someone is living in poverty, what has happened to them in the past, and what has affected their ability to take care of themselves?”

That perspective motivates all of Pate’s work.

“I’m just trying to bear witness to the reality of black men.”