Helping to stop the cycle of violence can start with helping kids overcome anger

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Fighting violence is a contradiction in terms. Instead of battling, those in the trenches say what we really want to do is quell anger and stop the cycle. Changing minds may be the key to bringing about meaningful progress when it comes to saving our city and the people in it.

Edward, Mercy Home resident: “When there's dead bodies lying on the ground, I'm kinda used to it. I grew up in Chicago, like in a rough neighborhood. I started losing people, people I grew up with. People losing their lives so quickly.”

To hide from fear, Edward built a wall of anger.

Edward: "I didn't know no better back then."

Then he found the key to breaking down that wall and silencing the hate and death - music.

Edward: “And when I get upset, I just play piano. Sometimes I play the same songs because those are the songs that keep me calm.”

Growing up in a gang infested neighborhood, watching friends die, he knew he wanted something more.

Edward: "I took it hard, honestly, and you know it makes me want to stay out of the streets because I don't want to be shot just because of gun violence. One time they tried to recruit me into a gang, and I said ‘no’.”

His grandmother had an idea - Mercy Home

Edward: "She helped me become the man I am today, and also Mercy Home because Mercy Home helped me like, you know, controlling my anger.”

But when Edward arrived, he didn’t know how to process the significant grief and trauma he’d experienced at such a young age.

But the counselors did. Using a special therapy model they adopted just two years ago, therapists focus on attachment and helping Edward build trusting relationships. At the same time, they taught him how to regulate his emotions.

Emily Neal, LCSW, Mercy Home therapeutic director: “Our role with them is to create a lot of predictability, structure and clear expectations and supports for them while they are here to help them kind of start to trust us and feel safe and that we have their best interests at heart.”

It’s called trauma-informed care. Instead of posing the question, "What’s wrong with you?" therapists now ask, "What happened to you and how can we help you heal?"

Emily Neal, LCSW: “Really, there’s no such thing as a bad kid. They just don’t necessarily have the skills necessary to manage all that they are faced with.”

Edward: “Life is decent because you build close relationships with everybody. They treat you like we all are brothers, helping us along the way, supporting us with our struggles.”

They learn.  They master the art of cooking and develop other life skills. Most importantly, they figure out how to cope.

Edward: “Music in general, music based things just keep me calm.”

Emily Neal: “We have a lot of different challenges that our kids are bringing to us and a lot of amazing resilience and strength that we see from them, and our job is to provide this safe, consistent environment and treatments so their strengths can start shining through.”

But not everyone can enjoy the safety behind these walls where caring people give mercy to those in need.

Colleen Cicchetti, PhD, Lurie Children’s psychologist: “There’s not a lot of people around, not a lot of people working. It just feels pretty isolated. I feel like it’s really easy in a big city like Chicago for folks to live in their own bubble and not see what the level of need is across the city. We have been working with kids impacted by violence and also having significant trauma for a long time.”

She’s based at Lurie Children’s Hospital, but today psychologist Colleen Cicchetti made the 23-mile trip from the city to the Dolton-Riverdale community in south suburban Cook County.

Colleen Cicchetti: “I’m down here every couple of weeks.”

She’s here to meet with local teachers – for privacy reasons, we weren’t allowed to follow her into the school, but she did show us the town, which includes a busy gun shop.

Colleen Cicchetti: “What we know is, angry kids can be violent, but when they’ve got a gun it becomes not just violent but really dangerous. For me personally, it’s just sort of a reminder of why we do the work we do to come out into communities that don’t have access mental health services. Most of these kids will never make it to an outpatient or inpatient program at a Lurie Children’s Hospital or a major academic med center so we’re trying to really build the capacity of the adults out here.”

They’re foot soldiers and bringing their expertise and mental health resources to communities and schools that have none. And not just those in the Chicago area but across the entire state. Dr Cicchetti and her team train others to recognize the signs and symptoms of distress and trauma. The idea is to empower teachers and administrators so they can help students regulate emotions, deal with anger and feel safe and secure.

Colleen Cicchetti: “What we’re finding is if you ask kids to raise their hand if they’ve known somebody who’s been a victim of a homicide, almost every hand goes up. It’s pretty daunting to realize the amount of exposure and the kinds of things that kids this age are thinking about, worrying about. One of the challenges is it’s not just one event. For many, many kids what we see is that the trauma is cumulative, it’s happening frequently. How do we get these stories out and have people understand that it really makes a difference in investing in people’s sense of hope?”

Being trauma informed is a skill doctors say we all need, knowing how to engage effectively with those impacted by violence, whether that’s in the workplace, schools or your own community. There are no clear answers, no one way to help children and families impacted by violence. Yet so many organizations and individuals are on the front lines, trying to make a difference.



More in the series: 

Part 1: For Chicago trauma center and its staff, city’s violence takes physical, emotional toll

Part 2: Church opens its doors for worship and care for the wounded in violence-plagued Chicago



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