Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Communities United, an intergenerational racial justice organization in Chicago, are working together to center the leadership and voices of Black and Brown young men of color in their ongoing efforts to transform the mental and behavioral healthcare system.
Core to this effort is Ujima, a group of young men of color ages 14-21 who have conducted a research study throughout the duration of the pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of Black and Brown young men in Chicago, culminating in a report titled “Changing the Beat of Mental Health.” Ujima, the group’s name, is a Swahili word meaning collective work and responsibility.
The research identifies systemic inequities and the normalization of trauma as key drivers of worsening mental health among young men of color. It calls for stakeholders and systems to respond to the urgency of addressing the mental health of young men of color by removing barriers that prevent them from sharing their full range of experiences, and creating more racially just systems that heal without causing further harm.
In their research, Ujima youth conducted 41 surveys, 11 interviews, and two youth-led focus groups with their peers in which they asked about mental health.
“This research allows people to listen to our lived experiences of how young men of color have challenges with mental health, and why we do not access what we need. And we can finally do something about it through deeper partnership.” – Deshawn Smith, Ujima Researcher.
Key Findings From the Report:
- Young men of color see a deep connection between systemic inequities and mental health, and often internalize the blame.
- Trauma is often normalized for young men of color.
- Young men of color feel that systems are not built to truly support their mental health and wellness, and that young people cannot share their full experiences and emotions without negative repercussions. For example, young people fear involvement with the child protective system and also fear being institutionalized by the mental health system.
- 55% of young men of color report that they would consider professional counseling if offered the chance.
- Young men of color want to be seen for the assets they bring to their communities and in our city. They want to be viewed for their full identities and potential for leadership.
“Hearing directly from young men of color that more than half are facing mental health challenges; that how they are portrayed negatively impacts their identity; and that trauma is normalized for them should challenge adults leading all our institutions to think differently about how we are serving them,” said Dr. Tom Shanley, Lurie Children’s CEO. “We are grateful to the Ujima Project youth and Lurie Children’s is committed to addressing these recommendations, together with government, institutional and community partners – with the voice of our youth at the center. We are going to include men of color to shape mental health policy and practice. And, we need to better engage young people of color as leaders and agents of change as we shape mental health practice and policy transformation.”
The report released at a hybrid in-person and virtual event, entitled, Ujima: How Young Men of Color Are Informing Our Mental Health System, drew more than 100 participants. It brought mental health professionals and elected officials together with public policy, civic and community leaders to engage the youth researchers on the report. The discussion focused on ways that hospitals, other health institutions and public policy makers can build working partnerships to support mental health and wellness justice.
Panelists included: State Sen. Robert Peters, 13th District, D-Chicago; Tami Benton, M.D., Pres. Elect, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; and John T. Walkup, M.D., Chair, Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago
Recommendations from the report included creating:
- A pilot project for young men of color to shape the mental health practice and policy transformation that involves them as leaders and agents of change.
- Targeted goals for bringing more mental health professionals into the system who are people of color and embrace the vision young men of color have for healing within themselves and their communities.
- A free and accessible mental health system that connects young men of color to resources to support their mental health and wellness.
- Create change to child and family facing care systems, including child protective services and mental health systems, through the leadership of youth of color and families. The youth identified that the mental health system is often inaccessible, and when available can compound distress and be harmful through bureaucracy and a focus on institutionalization.
- A free and accessible community-based model that infuses art, hip hop and other forms of music, physical activity, and e-sports and online gaming. There should also be classes on de-stressing and coping mechanisms for young men of color, leadership development, restorative practice and de-escalation year round.
- Young men of color recommend turning abandoned buildings into these centers within communities across Chicago. These centers should be run by people from the community. Transportation (like bus cards) and food should also be provided in these centers.
“It is critical to our mission that we respect the voice of youth as we build our systems of care, especially with respect to mental health services, where people often encounter stigma and barriers to care,” said John Walkup, M.D., Chair, Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health and a professor in child and adolescent psychiatry. “Through the Ujima project we have a rare opportunity to hear from young men of color about their lives, their struggles and what they feel is needed to improve the system.”
Ujima’s researchers are from communities that span Black and Brown communities across Chicago. Individually and as a group, Ujima represents the disproportionate impact gun violence and trauma has on Black and Brown young men. In the summer of 2020, they lost one of their researchers and youth leaders, 17-year-old Caleb Reed, to gun violence – a tragedy that is all too common for these young men.
Caleb Reed, a Communities United youth leader who was lost to gun violence in the summer of 2020, was among the founding members of the Ujima project. Reed found purpose in working with VOYCE and Communities United because he wanted to see change within the school system and within his neighborhood. Caleb a vision for a city that loves and supports Black and Brown young men, and young people in general.
Despite having to endure the loss of a friend, Ujima youth leaders, who dedicated the report to Reed, carried on his legacy of uplifting the voices of young men of color and their solutions to heal themselves and their communities.
“I lost a lot of friends to gun violence and gangs and it’s been difficult. A community that has no violence is something that we are striving for, that is why it is important to have support for young men of color. We need those opportunities and support to continue thriving.” – Nathaniel Martinez, Ujima youth researcher.
Communities United: An intergenerational racial justice organization in Chicago. CU develops grassroots leadership to build collective power to achieve racial justice and transformative social change. CU focuses on advancing health equity, affordable housing, education justice, youth investment, immigrant rights, police accountability, and shifting resources from the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems into restorative justice alternatives. For more information go to www.communitiesunited.org.
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is an Illinois not-for-profit corporation and a charitable organization. As one of the top pediatric hospitals in the nation, Lurie Children’s delivers the highest quality, family-centered care and high-impact research. Over half of the inpatient care Lurie Children’s provides is for children and adolescents insured by Medicaid. We are the largest pediatric specialty provider in the region, by volume, serving more than 220,000 patients annually with 364 licensed inpatient beds.
Lurie Children’s Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health provides high-quality inpatient, partial hospitalization and outpatient behavioral health services to children and adolescents. We are the largest provider for ADHD and Trauma-Related Disorders in the 7-County Chicagoland Area, and among the top five providers (by volume) of all pediatric outpatient mental health services.
Strengthening Chicago’s Youth (SCY) is Chicago’s largest violence prevention collaborative. SCY was launched by Lurie Children’s in 2012 and brings together over 4500 individuals representing a broad range of sectors, neighborhoods, and experiences with violence and criminal justice. SCY pursues violence prevention through strategies that emphasize building connections among our partners, including advocating for policy and systems change, sharing what works, serving as a catalyst for innovation, and connecting our partners to data.