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Survivors And Their Loved Ones Face Immense Trauma From Gun Violence — And Healing Must Be Prioritized, Advocates Say

Gun violence impacts survivors, victims and generations of their loved ones, and attempts to heal communities must address this range of impacts, experts said at a Tuesday panel.

Participants in C.H.A.M.P.S. Male Mentoring Program pose for a photo in front of the Michael Jordan statue at the United Center.
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HYDE PARK — As Chicago’s leaders work to address and prevent the wide-ranging impacts of gun violence, they must center the traumatic effects of violence on survivors and victims’ loved ones, advocates said at a panel discussion Wednesday.

Local and national violence prevention activists and advocates discussed the need for trauma-informed services at the afternoon chat, hosted by the University of Chicago Urban Network.

The impacts of gun violence go beyond the numbers of murders and suicides in a given year, said Selwyn Rogers, director of the UChicago Medicine Trauma Center. The trauma center was reopened in 2018 after a years-long push from community members.

“As the year comes to an end, there will be this mad rush in terms of, ‘Are we going to pass 500, 600, 700 homicides?'” Rogers said. “We don’t talk about all the people who are left behind. Those are families, communities that are incredibly devastated by the impact of firearm-related injuries.”

Brenda Mitchell, an activist for gun reform and lead volunteer for Moms Demand Action Illinois, said her entire family reeled from her son Kenneth’s killing in 2005.

Mitchell became a “second-generation parent” as the primary caregiver for his sons — including one who was born a month after the shooting. Kenneth’s death has scarred even his loved ones who weren’t born at the time, Mitchell said.

Kenneth’s youngest son “did not understand how everybody else knew his father but him” as he grew up, Mitchell said. Now 16, her grandson can’t cry about his father anymore “because it hurts so much,” she said.

“I did not realize the effect of trauma in my life,” Mitchell said. “I did not know that I was dying on the inside. … I had to take the time to save my own life in order to keep with the boys.”

Mitchell’s advocacy for gun reform policies has “guided me through my pain and recovery,” she said.

Mitchell is backing a bill that would allow Illinoisans to sue gun manufacturers and sellers over certain shootings, the latest campaign in her years-long fight to end gun trafficking. She was joined by Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts on Wednesday’s panel.

But healing from personal trauma is needed for the big-picture work to be effective, Mitchell said. She credits her involvement in support groups like local nonprofit Purpose over Pain and the national Everytown survivor network for helping her heal.

“We’re like the walking wounded,” Mitchell said. “Until we deal with the issues of trauma on a personal level as well as in our communities, then we’ll continue to be a little [gerbil] wheel that continues to spin.”

Credit: Zoom
Activist, pastor and gun violence survivor Benda Mitchell of Moms Demand Action Illinois speaks during Wednesday’s virtual panel discussion.

As a pastor, Mitchell called on faith leaders to show vulnerability about mental health issues and push back against a common belief that “if God and I can’t handle it, it’s not meant to be done.”

She also advocates for more trauma-informed care centers, which address the impacts of trauma on physical and mental health, to assist survivors and loved ones impacted by gun violence.

But making resources available for traumatized survivors and their families isn’t enough, as structural racism in the institutions that provide them has eroded South and West side residents’ trust, panelists said.

“There are so many caregivers out there that do not reflect or do not identify with people of color,” Mitchell said.

Institutions must hire “credible messengers” who understand the personal trauma of gun violence and the structural trauma caused by health care providers over generations, said Franklin Cosey-Gay, executive director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention.

Providers are better understanding “the need to have men and women in the trauma centers that … possess the cultural capital to connect individuals who might not trust these institutions that have failed not only them, but have failed their parents as well,” Cosey-Gay said.

Beyond health care, violence prevention programs like those at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago on the West Side, Lawrence Hall in South Shore and CHAMPS Male Mentoring in Greater Grand Crossing center relationship-building in their work.

Cutting off access to illegal guns, building relationships, engaging survivors with support groups and increasing access to mental health resources are just a few approaches to ending the cycle of gun violence, panelists said.

Violence traces its roots to decades of divestment from Chicago’s Black and Brown communities, Cosey-Gay said. Such a massive problem requires an equally massive attempt at solutions, he said, echoing the activists who for years have called on Chicago to boost violence prevention funding.

“It’s not about a singular program,” Cosey-Gay said. “It’s about a comprehensive and coordinated approach to address what we’re facing. What we are facing is really generations in the making.”

Wednesday’s panel was moderated by The Marshall Project criminal justice reporter Lakeidra Chavis, who previously covered gun violence prevention programs in Chicago for the Trace.

To watch a recording of the panel discussion, click here.

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