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Tanvi Misra/MEDILL

Rita Sallie talks about how her daughter Schanna Gayden got shot in July, 2010.

No consolidated help for mothers who have lost children to gun violence, expert says

by Tanvi Misra
Jun 6, 2013


Tanvi Misra/MEDILL

LaWanda Sterling looks at pictures of her 16-year-old son Jeremiah, who was shot in 2010 across the street in Morgan Park.


Tanvi Misra/MEDILL

Sterling sits in her apartment next to a photo of her son Jeremiah, as her dog Buddy watches kids play on the street outside. Jeremiah was shot across the street from Sterling's house.


Courtesy of Rita Sallie

13-year-old Schanna Gayden shows a peace sign. She was shot in a park behind her school on the West Side in 2007.


Courtesy of Rita Sallie

Schanna Gayden, daughter of Rita Sallie's, is buried in Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.


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Minors shot in Chicago from 2007-2012.

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Minors shot in 2013 through May 4.

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Tanvi Misra/MEDILL

LaWanda Sterling talks about her experience at the emergency room when her son Jeremiah was shot in 2010.

Tanvi Misra/MEDILL

Rita Sallie talks about the day she lost her daughter to gun violence.

Tanvi Misra/MEDILL

Rita Sallie remembers her 13-year-old daughter Schanna, who was shot in 2007.

Related Links

National support group for parents who have lost a childChicago Citizens for ChangeNational Organization of Parents of Murdered ChildrenNational Alliance on Mental Illness, Illinois

Culture protects victims of trauma, Dr. Bell says

Culture can be a protective mechanism in communities that experience violence and trauma, said Dr. Carl Bell, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Bell led a discussion on “traumatized communities” as a part of the Naomi Ruth Cohen mental health community conference at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston on Sunday.

“Psychiatrists need to understand how living in violent families and neighborhoods increases the likelihood of trauma and psychiatric sequelae associated with it, as well as how to respond in the aftermath,” he writes in his report titled “Trauma Associated with Living in Violent Neighborhoods,” published in Psychiatric Times on May 3.

One of the more factors that Bell highlighted during his talk at the conference was that physicians don’t understand the role of culture in providing relief to victims of trauma.

In the case of mothers who live in neighborhoods with high rates of crime, the ethnic and racial identity, which defines the identity of the traumatized group or individual, gives people the feeling that they have the right to survive, he said.

Culture helps in coping with trauma by providing cultural rituals, he said. Rituals within the realms of food, religion and social structure help to sooth by creating feelings of familiarity and reinforcing one’s identity, he said.

“If you bring me sauerkraut, I’m going to be mad at you because I don’t like sauerkraut,” Bell said, adding that perhaps some beans and black-eyed peas with rice might do the trick for him because they might trigger soothing childhood memories.

For women who have lost their children to gun violence, some cultural rituals, like enjoying black cultural food together or starting with a prayer from their church, might be rituals that reinforce their will to survive the trauma they are coping with.

LaWanda Sterling could not leave the apartment for months after her son Jeremiah was shot, just down the street in July, 2010.

“My friends didn’t know what to do … it was like everybody just sat around and looked at me,” she said.

One day soon after the shooting, “You’re the one” by R&B singer Dondria was playing on the radio. Sterling listened to the first three lines of the lyrics on repeat and cried, she said, thinking of her 16-year-old’s dimpled smile.

“It was like a vicious cycle,” she said. “… I ached and I hurt and I didn’t know how to express it, who to express it to, or how to get away from that pain.”

This cycle of rewind and repeat finally prompted Sterling to seek formal mental help, but it was eventually support groups in her community that really helped her, she said.

For mothers like Sterling there is no coordinated help to cope with the trauma of losing a child to gun violence, said Dr. Carl Bell, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, an expert in traumatized communities. The various safety nets -- the state, the city, the church -- are all doing something different, he said.

Bell said that government and academics alike need to figure out models that can be placed in communities that have a high incidence of gun violence, so that natural, community and family safety nets are strengthened.

“If all that fails, then you can do the professional stuff,” he said.

In terms of government safety nets, the city of Chicago consolidated its 12 mental health clinics to six amid considerable criticism.

“It made very good sense,” said Bell, who is on the board of health, adding that some clinics were closed in areas where the resources were not properly used. He said that the health commissioner provided statistics that no patients were lost in the transition and that, in fact, they were being able to provide services for more people.

The Illinois Department of Human Services also funds several facilities. Bell himself ran a comprehensive mental health clinic on the South Side that did trauma-counseling services, but the Community Mental Health Council closed down in 2012, after the state declined to renew their contract citing “mismanagement of funds.” Bell said that the problem was that the state was broke, so the staff was being paid very slowly.

“It’s not the city, it’s the state that’s removing services from the people,” Bell said.

The Illinois Department of Human Services declined comment.

Despite this, Bell said that there are mental resources available from the government. But according to Sterling, who sees a state psychiatrist once every three months, the type of services the clinics provided didn’t help her.

“He [the state psychiatrist] wants to dispense medication and he’ll say, that’s hard, that’s tough, it’s going to take a long time,” Sterling said, adding that the medication just provides superficial relief and doesn’tt get to the root of her problems.

Bell said that although medication is necessary in some cases, this approach precludes the importance of community, spiritual and cultural factors in providing support for traumatized mothers.

“It’s easier to dish meds to try to help people get some relief than it is to do other things, and I think that’s unfortunate,” said Bell.

Support groups composed of parents that have suffered similar loss, are such community-based organizations, that provide psychological support on a sociological, individual and perhaps cultural level, Bell said.

For Sterling, nobody could help her except the people who were in the same position before and after her, she said.

“We all suffer from the same illness,” she said. “We have the same tears, we walking the same walk.”

Groups like Parents of Murdered Children do advocacy against gun violence, reach out to new parents who’ve lost children and provide a network of support.

“They turn their traumatic helplessness into learned helpfulness, which is sort of a psychological level [of coping with trauma],” Bell said.

Dawn Valenti, a community organizer, works with Chicago Citizens for Change, an organization against gun violence. She has been working with these mothers since 2007. She believes the support comes from each other, much more so than from state or city facilities, she said.

“It helps them realize they’re not alone,” she said, adding that often times after the media attention dissipates, no one thinks of how the parents are coping.

Another important part of being in a support group is that no one dictates what to do or how to feel on these mothers, said Justine Schrimsher, a life coach, who works with the Helping Parents Heal organization based in Arizona, which has 18 chapters across the nation.

“We don’t tell people what to do or how to grieve,” said Schrimsher, who lost her son in 2007, adding that the online resources they provide are sometimes easier for grieving parents to use than in-person support meetings.

“We don’t pressure anyone to do it a certain way,” she said.

Rita Sallie, whose 13-year-old daughter Schanna Gayden was shot in a park behind her school on the West Side, belongs to the Facebook group started by Schrimsher’s organization.

Sallie’s daughter had gone to buy fruit from her favorite fruit stall in July 2007, and Sallie said the wound is still too raw.

“Did she hear me when I came to that park? Did she feel it when they shot at her? Did she know I was there? Those things go through my mind every day,” Sallie said.

Sallie said that she buries the pain so deep that the mention of her daughter’s name brings everything flooding back and she begins to cry. Since her daughter’s death, she has lost jobs and dealt with eviction.

“It takes forever to make the simplest decision,” she said. “Sometimes, I can’t get up, I just lay there. My body refuses to obey me.”

For Sallie, going to the support group meetings and events is too painful. “I feel like I’m a part of a group I don’t want to be a part of…”

She knows she has to stop running, but she just isn’t ready, she said. Despite this, she said that the women in the group support her and remain patient with her.

Sallie cries as she remembers her daughter’s wit and humor, she folds in half the napkin she has been using to wipe her tears, and then again in clean soggy quarters. She lays it out neatly in front of her.

“As long as I have that support system out there, floating around in the ether, if I need them, then that kind of helps me,” she said.