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Inefficient mental health services linked to gun violence

by Donald Leonard
Feb 06, 2013


Donald Leonard/MEDILL

Mental health services for urban youths such as this girl are lacking the most of any age group, said Keith Gilliam, a family mental health clinician in Boston. 

In the midst of the U.S. debate on gun control, nearly 10 children under the age of 18 were killed in Chicago in January.

 Medical professionals believe that the suffering of urban community children and the mental health services provided in their communities are overlooked and that improved and increased mental health services can play a significant role in reducing the level of violence.

“The services that are available are fair and unfair,” said Dr. Carl Bell, a member of the Chicago Board of Health. “Public clinics are evenly distributed. However, you don’t find private clinic facilities in poor black neighborhoods.”

Without the balance of both, the psychiatrist believes it leaves the black neighborhoods underserved.

Keith Gilliam, a mental health clinician for gunshot and stab wound victims at Boston Medical Center agrees, but also feels there aren’t enough services in general.

“Oftentimes you have a lot of grant funding positions and sometimes those positions aren’t around the next year,” he said. “So when they’re gone, people don’t even have a sense of what’s around and that’s discouraging.”

He added, “Community violence really makes an impact, so if services aren’t there, then numbness, hopelessness, helplessness and sort of acceptance of the situation increases, which has seemed to happen.”

Neither Bell nor Gilliam blame the lack of mental services as the direct cause for urban violence. But both expressed that in attempting to reduce the alarming rates, the need for mental health services cannot be ignored.

Dr. Thea James, a Boston emergency physician and a member of the U.S. Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, wasn’t as critical on the number of services available, but rather the efficiency of the services themselves.

James said it’s time to provide more upstream services instead of downstream. In other words, do things before something happens instead of after something tragic occurs.

One of the ways she said this could be done is by performing mental health screening early and often. James said any service that works with children should have a certified professional available to detect whether the child has any underlying mental concerns that need to be addressed.

She also said screening parents is essential because if the parents are dealing with stressors, those stressors can then be transmitted to the baby inside the womb.

“A lot of people commit violence because they needed health services a long time ago,” James said. “Hurt people, hurt people.”

Reducing violence occurring in American urbancommunities is not an easy fix, but it’s an issue James, Bell and Gilliam said needs more attention. 

Children are dying at alarming rates and not so much in their schools, but in the neighborhoods they call home.

“Gun violence probably afflicts the urban community more than any other subculture and even more disheartening is that it’s often kids killing kids.” Gilliam said.

“The cry of help has been ignored for years,” he said.