Promoting Resilience among Youth and Families Affected by Community Violence

As of the end of November 2021, in the city of Chicago, there were 3,766 shootings and 739 homicides. The number of shooting victims in the city has gone up compared to the last three years, and the number of homicides has surpassed last year’s numbers, up 3% from 2020.

Community violence, including gun violence is an escalating problem in not just Chicago but throughout the nation. At least 12 major U.S. cities have hit all time annual homicide records in 2021.

Community violence is a public health crisis and an ever-present media story. News feeds, broadcast, print and digital news media is saturated with stories of devastating violence and particularly gun violence committed against youths across the country. But after the cameras leave, and the police and investigators have processed the crime what becomes of the families and communities of the victims? How are they left to cope with the traumatic impact and ripple effect such acts have on their lives?

The gun violence crisis is also a mental health crisis.

Dr Liza Suarez“Such violence devastates communities both through the immediate loss of life and the long-term, harmful effects of trauma experienced by victims, their families, witnesses, and community residents. Trauma and the exposure to violence interrupts youth’s brain development, harming mental and physical health,” says Dr. Liza Suarez, who along with Dr. Jaleel K. Abdul-Adil are co-directors of the Urban Youth Trauma Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Urban Youth Trauma Center (UYTC) focuses on addressing the needs of Dr Jaleel Abdul-Adiltraumatized youth and families affected by community violence, with a special emphasis on traumatized youth. The center promotes and disseminates comprehensive, integrated, and coordinated care for multi-problem, high-risk youth with co-occurring disorders including substance abuse and disruptive behavior problems.

UYTC represents the type of innovative vital resources that are necessary to meet this crisis head on.

UYTC was created to address the gap of services where these problems are especially prevalent in under-served and under-resourced low-income urban communities in Chicago.

“Chicago as well as other metropolitan areas – and actually the country itself – needs trauma-informed violence prevention and intervention to support and protect some of our most vulnerable urban youth and families. The gap between available services and community needs inspired the creation of the UYTC, a collaborative venture of UIC Department of Psychiatry’s Institute for Juvenile Research colleagues to address this problem by combining our respective professional expertise and experience. Although individual providers throughout Chicago worked to address certain aspects of this problem, there was no large scale and localized center that provided a range of trainings, assessments, and services in conjunction with local service systems and mental health agencies, as UYTC does," says Dr. Abdul-Adil.

In addition to those unique aspects that differentiates UYTC from similar trauma and community violence resources, UYTC employs treatments that engage youth popular cultural materials to enhance the appeal and impact of traditional evidence-based programming for racially, ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse sets of youth and families.


Complex problems require collaborative solutions

Addressing or responding to community violence is a complex task the requires the collective powerful force of the medical community, government entities and the public to create a framework of a trauma-informed continuum of prevention-to-intervention services. Such services integrate community-based and clinic-based manualized protocols designed to reduce and prevent community violence for youth and families.

“Key to effectively increasing sustainable mental health services for youth gun violence victims relies on adapting our traditional models for service delivery and clinical research outcomes to address the complexities of co-occurring conditions that contribute to gun violence and other forms of interpersonal violence,” says Dr. Abdul-Adil.

Youth who have experienced trauma are more vulnerable to stress and are more likely to have trouble identifying, expressing, and managing emotions. They are at higher risk of disruptive behaviors such as delinquency, gang involvement, being involved with court, juvenile justice, substance abuse and suicide. Problems often develop when early support and mental health resources are not available.

There are many circumstances that can lead youth to engage in violence, which can include prior exposure to violence or intense conflict, lack of connectedness and support, and exposure to societal messages, or societal norms, that encourage violence.  Exposure to community violence for youth can lead to a wide range of negative, long-term outcomes, which can include post-traumatic stress, problems regulating emotions and behaviors, relationship challenges, academic problems, low self-esteem, and even long-term health problems.

Combatting community violence is complicated by the lack of access to quality mental health care in lower-income communities where community violence is disproportionately more prevalent. Furthermore, the historic context of ambiguity and even encouragement of pro-violence perspectives in mainstream society (racism, warfare, etc.) can contribute to the current problems with community violence among youth and families today.

UYTC has responded to crises related to community violence with urgent training for front-line providers in charge of supporting local youth and families.  Trainings emphasize evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies that are tailored to meet the complex and diverse needs of traditionally underserved youth. UYTC also trains agency providers on the engagement and enrichment of traditional mental health techniques through the use of popular music and media including Rap music and Hip-Hop culture. Providers report both knowledge gains and increased youth responsiveness through these media-driven techniques.

In responding to community violence as a national mental health crisis UYTC provides much needed training, consultation, and program evaluation supports to partners in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network in targeted locations in Chicago as well as around the country including Laredo, Oakland, Sacramento, Toledo, Minneapolis, and Baltimore.

At the cornerstone of UYTC’s trauma-informed violence prevention are solutions and best practices that all stakeholders can contribute to and work collaboratively to implement. The best practices include:

1.) Support survivors of trauma and violence

2.) Connect those survivors to positive adults and other mentors within the community

3.) Develop the survivors’ skills so they have their gifts that they can focus on as opposed to their tragedies

4.) Provide a sense of safety and practical places where people can go where they are free or feel safe from violence around them

5.) Address societal norms to change the message provided to youth so that violence is not looked at as tactic for solving problems, and rather something we can all try to reduce or prevent

“Most of the neighborhoods we serve have very few, if any, mental and behavioral health services resources,” says Dr. Suarez. “Our evidence-based programs help local organizations gain competency in supporting trauma-affected youth so that they can help fill these health services gaps right in the neighborhoods where they work and reach those that need help the most. It’s imperative that we can impart solutions of strength and positivity.”

Jaleel K. Abdul-Adil PhD

  • Co-Director of the Urban Youth Trauma Center
  • Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry

Liza M. Suarez PhD

  • Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry
  • Director, Pediatric Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic
  • Co-Director, Urban Youth Trauma Center