Chicago’s mental health resources for young black and brown men need an overhaul — and a bunch of them are looking at how to do it
The collective trauma of seeing 13-year-old Adam Toledo shot in police body camera footage in March 2021 was not a new sensation for young black and brown men on the city’s West Side.
But this time, the researchers were watching. Researchers who knew exactly how they felt.
“That’s the lived experience that these young people are dealing with,” said Claudio Rivera, a pediatric psychologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University.
The research — presented Monday at Lurie Children’s in hopes of raising $20 million to foster youth-led strategies on community healing and improving mental health in Chicago — was a collaborative effort between the hospital, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education and Communities United, Chicago’s survivor-led, intergenerational, racial justice organization.
The two-year study prompted the creation of Ujima, a cohort of black and brown men aged 21 and under, who based their work on the premise that, given their experiences, young men of color are best equipped to research their own community’s experience with mental health and make recommendations for effective change.
Trained in research ethics, Ujima researchers conducted surveys, interviews and focus groups with peers on mental health. Their report found:
Two-thirds of those surveyed said they struggled with mental health issues;
Trauma is often normalized for young men of color;
One in four respondents said they “felt anxious, constantly worried or extremely nervous” four or more days a week;
The main systemic factors related to mental health are schools, jobs, racism and poverty;
Young men of color feel they are viewed by society through the lens of race and gender, and the stereotypes that come with it, rather than seen as whole people with contributions to make. to the world around them.
Ujima, who takes her name from the Swahili word for collective work and responsibility, also made recommendations based on her research, which ranged from integrating more mental health professionals of color into the system; to transform abandoned buildings in Chicago into community centers where young people can participate in art, music and classes on topics such as coping mechanisms, leadership development and de-escalation tactics.
The data in the report will inform the holistic 10-year plan the grassroots organization and medical institution is developing with the help of a $1 million planning grant in 2021 from the Foundation’s 2030 Racial Equity Challenge. WK Kellogg.
If Chicago wins the next phase of the challenge, the plan could receive up to $20 million to complete. The awards, to be announced this summer, are to be used to develop and scale concrete ideas for transformative change in the systems and institutions that maintain racial inequality.
The study proved eye-opening, even for Ujima members whose life experiences mirrored those of their subjects.
Alexander Villegas, 20, an Albany Park resident and founder of Ujima, said he was surprised young men of color were uncomfortable seeing a counselor or therapist because they feared their story was unsure or thought the professional was only talking to them for the paycheck.
Jermal Ray, 17, another Ujima scholar and a senior at Curie Metropolitan High School, agreed.
“I’ve learned that young men of color don’t see counselors or receive mental health support for fear of being sent to a psychotic facility or that they won’t be taken seriously,” said Ray. “I got involved in this project because I know people who have gone through mental health issues, and it’s hard not being able to help them.”
Participants said they believe society sees them only through a lens of race and gender – and the stereotypes that go with it – rather than as people in their own right.
“When it comes to men of color, we’re sort of eliminating mental health,” said one participant. “When we actually admit we have issues like PTSD, people deny it. They tell us: ‘How is this possible?’ and that there is nothing wrong, so they are not helping us. But if a white person said they had it, they would treat it right away.
The study benefited from his experiences as young researchers, Rivera, a co-principal investigator of the Kellogg proposal, said.
“The demand has been there because they recognize what the need has always been,” he said. “It only further reinforces what has been the clarion call: ‘We want this. We needed this. We want better now. And we know the best. These recommendations are long overdue, but they are also within reach.
The details of the report are startling and show the benefit of giving voice to young men at the center of the research, said Dr. John Walkup, chair of Lurie’s Department of Child Psychiatry and principal investigator of the Kellogg proposal.
“Lurie for Kids has always been focused on young people…but we haven’t always listened to the kids in the community,” Walkup said. “I think we’ve raised awareness of the voices of young people in the city of Chicago, around not just cancer and heart disease and things like that, but the injustice around race, discrimination and about public schools. of Chicago and the mental health system, and access.
“We are creating a new dialogue, and it will continue,” he added. “We are listening and listening hard now. Even when we don’t like what they have to say, because they’re pressuring us to be better in a way we need to be better, we can deal with that.
Rivera, who has been involved in research and wellness checks through her work at Lurie Children’s, recalls the feelings shared by young people after Toledo, who was like them, from communities like theirs, was killed by a Chicago police officer almost a year ago. . The video was another thing young people were dealing with at the time, including their personal traumas and the mental shock of the pandemic.
But the research created a safe space where participants knew they could share openly and would have support.
It was having “that feeling of letting them know that this was a safe, private space to be vulnerable that this stuff emerged,” Rivera said.
Villegas and Ray want to see mental health professionals who live in or come from the neighborhoods they serve. In this way, they understand the stressors of the environment when working with young people in these communities.
As he did the research, Ray said he became more open-minded towards other young men facing different challenges.
“The research wasn’t just to learn about our situations, but how it connects to other boys of color and leads them to help themselves,” Ray said. “It gives me confidence to show myself.”
Both want change, and if Kellogg’s proposal doesn’t win, Villegas said Ujima will continue to push to raise awareness for mental health resources in black and brown neighborhoods because “the job is never done.” .
And I hope partner organizations and others in the city will continue to answer their call for change.
“I think it’s throwing down the gauntlet to a place like Lurie and others to say ‘Do you all want to listen to us?’ Rivera said, “The immediate follow-up will help demonstrate that young people in these communities are centered and validated in what they say. And that they are in fact seen as partners.”