BACK OF THE YARDS — City-sponsored mental health skills trainings are being held throughout the summer to equip communities with violence prevention and de-escalation tools.
The trainings are free for neighbors thanks to funding from the city’s health department and Community Safety Coordination Center, said Katherine Calderon, director of mental health operations at the city’s health department.
The goal of the sessions is to build a network of trauma-informed care across the city on a “hyperlocal level,” Calderon said.
“We’ve been hearing from the community, from leaders and from our providers that more mental health skill building training is needed,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are in roles serving people, providing support, and they don’t feel equipped to have the skills needed or the toolbox to be able to address what they’re seeing without having that formalized mental health training.”
There are 10 four-week-long cohorts being held across the city to cover 15 communities most impacted by violence. The two-hours-long, once-a-week sessions have wrapped up already in Little Village and West and East Garfield Park, but the rest are still going on or haven’t started yet.
- Englewood & West Englewood: July 12 and 19
- North Lawndale: July 14 and 21
- Back of the Yards: July 12 and 19
- Greater Grand Crossing & South Shore: July 14 and 21
- Auburn Gresham: July 26 and Aug. 2, 9 and 16
- Chicago Lawn: July 28 and Aug. 4, 11 and 18
- Austin & West Humboldt Park: July 26 and Aug. 2, 9 and 16
- West Pullman & Roseland: July 28 and Aug. 4, 11 and 18
Organizers from the Center for Healing and Justice Through Sport — whose mission is to connect the benefits of physical activity with trauma-informed care — are leading the training sessions. Pharlone Toussaint, director of External Affairs at the group, said sport and physical activity are underused tactics in addressing trauma, especially among young people.
“The idea is how do we train people to understand that the brain is a very malleable organ, and if we can understand it and respect it, we can actually use it to heal and reverse trauma,” she said.
The sessions start with making this neuroscience “really relatable to everyday people, so that they can recognize that the trauma that they’re seeing in the streets and in these communities are actually very natural impulses that happen to people after experiencing overwhelming stress,” Toussaint said.
The class also teaches de-escalation tactics to help people manage their stress through “patterned, rhythmic, repetitive activity,” Toussaint said. It can be something as easy as bouncing a ball or going for a walk, she said.
“These kinds of activities are soothing to the brain and help us to regulate so that we can get back to a place where we can relate with one another, so we can finally use our prefrontal cortex and start to think rationally and make more rational decisions,” Toussaint said.
Calderon and Toussaint said they’re hearing good feedback from the participants.
Vincent Carter, an outreach specialist for nonprofit Transforming Re-Entry Services, has attended Back of the Yards sessions with co-workers. He works with people in a lot of different situations — whether it’s addiction, homelessness or previously being incarcerated — and said he’s been “pleasantly surprised” by the classes and the skills he’s learned.
“It’s already amazingly paralleled to what I do in the field,” Carter said. “We have to find unique ways to socially gather information from individuals who don’t want to give you this information. A lot of people aren’t going to be very vocal about what their true needs are. They aren’t telling you what the real problem is. These are things that are definitely going to help gather data.”
The classes are open to a wide array of community members, essentially “anyone who is [working] on the ground,” Calderon said.
“I can’t say enough how mental health needs have just risen so much [throughout] the pandemic,” she said. “People in systems where they didn’t typically see as much mental health needs are seeing so much more and feeling, ‘How do we address this crisis? Or how do we de-escalate the situation?'”
Sheryl Maria White, another Back of the Yards cohort attendee, said she decided to join the class because she works with many young people who might be coming from a difficult background. Her work started with donating suitcases to kids leaving the foster care system, and it’s turned into a group called Pink Lemons that offers mentorships to teens and adults, she said.
“Most of these youth experience more than one trauma,” White said. “I would be doing a disservice to not understand trauma-informed care and be able to attempt to add some type of healing and what I like to call micro-affirmations into everything we do. There’s few workshops that are geared for non-mental health professionals, but we’re on the ground with these populations. We definitely should be informed.”
Calderon said she thinks the trainings will benefit attendees’ work and help them navigate their own fatigue to prevent burnout.
“I just feel like the compounding trauma, and continuous trauma, of our current time is just really taxing sort of everyone in it, so I’m really excited to provide support not only for people to feel more equipped to have tools, but also to get that support themselves,” Calderon said.
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