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Social worker Phil Weiss speaks to students about gang violence outside Senn High School in Edgewater on Wednesday.


Mental health issues key to addressing youth violence

by Marla Friedman and Sean Cooley
Oct 22, 2009


Sean Cooley/MEDILL

Weiss speaks to a classroom of at-risk youth about school policies on fighting and gang violence.

Statistics and probability are at the core of Ron Huberman’s strategy of targeting at-risk youth to curb violence at Chicago public schools.

But the faces behind the statistics might prove to be even more important. Students classified in the plan as being at risk for violence are often coping with mental health issues that many see as the root of the issue.

“Individual violence is a maladaptive response to either a problem or emotions,” said Dr. Breeda McGrath, associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Huberman, chief executive officer of Chicago public schools, initiated a plan that identifies 10,000 students at high risk of becoming victims of violence and pinpoints 1,200 of them as being at the highest risk. While specific details have yet to be released, the plan calls for giving those highest-risk students a paying job, a 24-hour on-call advocate and a routine assessment by social workers.

To effectively limit youth violence, however, the mental health issues behind the violence must be addressed, said mental health experts. Such students can develop depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that may get misdiagnosed or go untreated, said Dr. George Smith, a clinical and educational psychologist.

“Issues of post-traumatic stress are due to being exposed to shootings, seeing people who are killed or beaten,” he said. “Many of the children who saw the video [of Derrion Albert] or part of it were traumatized. And sometimes we never treat them for their symptoms, and somewhere down the road they act out.”

The alarm system that signals danger can also be too sensitive in the brains of youth exposed to violence, said Dr. Gene Griffin, clinical director of Illinois Childhood Trauma Coalition.

“With traumatized kids, the accelerator for the threat gets triggered too easily,” he said. “It’s like it get stuck on ‘on,’ so you’re misinterpreting danger more frequently and overreacting to situations that a regular person wouldn’t react to.”

Early intervention and an emphasis on seven protective factors can lessen the risk of acting out, according to the research of Dr. Carl Bell, president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council. The protective factors include a sense of community, connection to a larger group or goal, the presence of an adult protective shield and the opportunity to learn social and emotional skills.

“There are tons of things that children experience that make them at risk,” said Bell, “but there are these protective factors that cancel out the risk.”

The factors are part of a larger requirement to prevent youth violence – a healthy environment with a good support system.

“When you don’t have that, you’re going to have chaos,” said Smith. “You’re going to have children that feel adults can’t protect them, so they think they’re going to have to protect themselves.”

The change in environment can start at the schools, if social skills to combat aggression are incorporated into the school curriculum itself, said McGrath.

“Unless you actively teach these skills to kids, you’re not assured that they will learn them,” she said. “It’s like reading. They have to be taught.”