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Chicago’s gun violence crisis is also a mental health crisis

Health Aug 22, 2017, 4:37 PM EDT

Kimberly Greer can’t sleep. Almost every night for the better part of four years, she has woken up in the dark. The numbers on her clock flash 3:30 a.m.

Greer rouses at this hour most nights, haunted by the faces of her son, Ricky, her daughter, Ryann, and her nephew, Jordan — three of the hundreds of Chicago’s victims of gun violence. One survived. Two did not. But they all come back in the hours she can’t sleep.

“I’m traumatized,” she says, thinking about the people she’s lost.

Her daughter, Ryann, was hit in the head by a bullet in March 2006. An assailant shot and killed her friend as they sat in the front seat of her friend’s car. Ryann survived the shooting, but she woke up in a medically induced coma and it took years of rehab at home with help from her mother to regain her motor skills.

Greer’s 30-year-old son, Ricky Brown, wasn’t as lucky. On March 21, 2012, while leaving for his job at the U.S. post office, Brown was shot multiple times in the chest as he descended the steps of his Englewood home.

“I feel bad for every mother who has lost a child,” she said.

Greer’s nephew, Jordan “BayBay” Liggins, was 18 when he was fatally shot in the head one morning last June while sitting in a car — also in Englewood.

Every day on her way to work as a drug counselor at St. Bernard’s Hospital, Greer drives from her South Side neighborhood past that spot where her nephew was killed.

“I have to suck up my grief. Whatever I’m feeling I gotta suck it up and keep it moving,” she said. “Go to work because you can’t fall to pieces.”

Greer, 58, is one of thousands of people across the South and West Sides of Chicago who experience some form of mental health trauma as a result of gun violence. And as the number of shootings in the city increases, mental health providers are struggling to keep up.

Few resources

In 2016, there were more than 4,000 shootings and 762 homicides in the city, according to the Chicago Police Department — a nearly 60 percent increase from 2015. It’s the highest number of homicides since the 1990s, though recent numbers are still well below the worst years of that decade.

“Every time a person gets shot, especially a young person, there are literally hundreds of people who are affected by that shooting.”

Through the first seven months of 2017, there have been 397 murders, 1,692 shootings, and 2,124 shooting victims in Chicago, according to the police. The number of shootings is down 13 percent compared to this time last year, but there has been one more murder so far compared to 2016, police data show. The overwhelming majority of these incidents took place on the city’s South and West Sides, where communities reeling from violent deaths also face anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a host of other mental health conditions, says Brad Stolbach, the clinical director of Healing Hurt People-Chicago, a trauma treatment organization.

“Every time a person gets shot, especially a young person, there are literally hundreds of people who are affected by that shooting,” Stolbach said. Those people are “not thought about,” he said.

Meanwhile, since 2009, the city has closed six mental health clinics. Between 2009 and 2012, the state cut $113.7 million in funding for mental health services, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) Chicago branch. And while mental health coverage expanded under the Affordable Care Act, service providers who work with low-income clients still say they are strained.

Map courtesy Chicago Department of Public Health

Credit: Chicago Department of Public Health

A 2014 Department of Public Health assessment of Chicago’s behavioral health resources indicated an inadequate citywide infrastructure for mental health.

In recent years, city government and health care providers have launched initiatives to train police officers and volunteers in trauma response techniques. Chicago Public Schools also received a $1.35 million federal grant for trauma support, intended for use at the 10 high schools where community violence is most prevalent.

Map courtesy Chicago Department of Public Health

Credit: Chicago Department of Public Health

“I am confident we will be in a better place, but it won’t happen overnight,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Julie Morita said.

As part of a five-year plan launched in March 2016, the city is training new police officers in crisis intervention when working with residents who have experienced trauma. Chicago also received a $5 million federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to invest in programs that build trauma resiliency in neighborhoods with high rates of violence. It will be used, in part, to:

  • Establish a Chicago ReCAST (Resiliency in Communities After Stress and Trauma) Institute to train staff at city agencies and partner organizations on “how to identify, respond and support recovery from to various forms of trauma.”
  • Launch a directory of resources that will better connect community organizations and residents to the city’s mental health services.
  • Expand mental health services through new partnerships with Cook County Health and Hospitals System and the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services.

“We recognize that there is a need in these communities and we’re working feverishly to address those needs,” Morita said. “There are too few resources for us not to be working together.”

But providers and residents still say there isn’t enough support to fully address the mental health issues their communities face.

“A kid who never had a chance”

Everyone called Jordan Liggins “BayBay” because he was the baby in the family. Though he was the youngest, he was protective of his mom and older siblings. He was also a jokester who liked swimming and played baseball. When Liggins needed to make money, he drummed on buckets on the streets of downtown Chicago or passed out fliers for local companies.

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