Part of being a Chicagoan and a parent of a young adult son is living with the awareness that your child could get shot. It’s a reality that you try to ensure does not happen, but a few months ago it came far too close to becoming a reality for me.
This winter, on his way home from classes at Harold Washington College, my eldest son was shot at by someone aiming towards another group of young men as he was getting off the L. Thankfully, he was not hit, but that 30-second incident caused him to suffer weeks of post-traumatic stress symptoms that made his life hell and our home chaotic.
Unfortunately, I’ve buried friends, family members and former students who have been victims of shootings most of my life. Thanks to my work in education and health, I have a better understanding of trauma care than most people.
Even so, when I was thrown into the situation of needing to access services for my son, I saw firsthand how difficult it can be to receive them. Psychiatric services are scarce, treatment is uncoordinated, and quality of care is often hit or miss.
Fortunately, we were able to turn to the University of Chicago Medicine’s REACT (Recovery & Empowerment After Community Trauma) Clinic for a comprehensive assessment, diagnosis and treatment for my son’s mental health needs. The University of Chicago Medicine is a part of the United Way of Metro Chicago’s Neighborhood Network Initiative, which is bringing together 10,500 community stakeholders within 10 of the most underserved neighborhoods in our region to collectively address community issues, such as childhood trauma.
A collective impact model that brings parents, teachers, counselors, health care providers, police officers, community leaders and residents around the table is necessary to drive change. By ensuring that everyone realizes the widespread impact of trauma and recognizes the signs and symptoms, all parties are empowered to adequately respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures and practices that actively resist re-traumatization.
Immediate care is just the first part of the recovering from trauma. Every time gun shots go off in our neighborhood, we’re faced with the possibility that my son will be triggered, and that the healing process will have to start all over again.
Sure, we have the option to move and have made the decision not to leave our neighborhood — but not all families have that choice. That being said, staying — and fully healing — involves long-term resources.
Providing supportive, continuous care looks different for every community, but there’s one common thread — relationships.
Overcoming trauma and building resilience requires a “wrap around” approach that cares for the entire individual and their family. A community that shares a common agenda is best positioned to foster those relationships. That’s why we need to ensure that first responders, school counselors, teachers and parents in our communities have the training and resources to address the trauma that children in Chicago face all too often.
This year we witnessed the courageous response of children who were exposed to the trauma of a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. That tragedy served as a reminder that we may not fully understand what children who experience trauma are going through, but as a community, we’re responsible for how we respond.
By recognizing that systems and structures have failed our families and creating supportive places for people to heal and thrive we can break the cycle of violence, mental illness, poverty and homelessness. It’s only when communities work together toward this shared goal that we can build stronger families, stronger neighborhoods and a stronger Chicago region.
I can honestly say that without these services and the support of neighbors, health care practitioners, human service providers and faith-leaders, my family would not feel safe, resilient and on our way toward healing.
Today, we are still seeing an incredible psychotherapist, my son is determined to complete his studies and I’m even more invested in working with partners to establish neighborhood relationships and increasing access to these critical services.
Jose Rico is senior vice president of community investment at the United Way of Metro Chicago.
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