Some West Side house parties and sidewalk socials in defiance of the state’s stay-at-home order have made local and national news headlines, but one behavioral health expert says that the gatherings betray a deep truth.

“Young people are scared,” said Charles Levy, of Garfield Park Behavioral Hospital, 520 N. Ridgeway Ave. “It’s like they’re in jail. And that causes them to start feeling a sense of hopelessness, because they don’t know when they’re going to get out. And that tends to bring depression.”

Levy was one of several medical professions who spoke during the West Garfield Park Victual Town Hall on May 14. He emphasized that monitoring the mental states of young people is more important now than ever. So is getting them the support they need.

Levy acknowledged that there is a stigma in the black community about getting mental health services, he urged residents to be open-minded. The meeting came on the week when 17 West Garfield Park residents died of COVID-19.

The virtual town hall is part of a larger awareness campaign the city is conducting to bring attention to the stark realities in African American communities that may be exacerbating the COVID-19 pandemic—from a host of health issues and a lack of health insurance to grinding poverty.

The town halls are organized by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Racial Equity Rapid Response initiative, which works with community organizations throughout the South and West Sides in four “pillar” areas of education, prevention, testing and treatment.

“The young people we have now, they’ve never gone through a major virus, they haven’t seen anything like it,” Levy said.

He said that young people are also angry about the new normal brought on by the pandemic. The new restrictions can be particularly onerous on young people who experience domestic violence in their homes, Levy explained. Mix in a sense of invincibility shared by most young people and the logic of the crowded gatherings becomes much easier to understand.

Rev. Marshall Hatch, the pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4301 W. Washington Blvd. in West Garfield Park, explained that his church has already been working on supporting young men who are dealing with stress.

The MAAFA Redemption Project provides career guidance, counseling and spiritual support for young men, ages 18 to 30, who are at risk. Hatch said that the project continues its work online, providing support and delivering meals for the men currently enrolled in the program.


Health disparities


During the town hall, the medical professionals said that West Garfield Park residents are more likely to have underlying conditions that may increase their risks of contracting a serious case of COVID-19 and/or dying from the disease.

The rates of asthma, diabetes and hypertension are between 1.3 and two times the citywide average. West Garfield Park residents are also nearly twice as likely to lack health insurance, nearly three times as likely to rely on food and stamps and twice as likely to smoke as the typical Chicago resident.

David Ansell, the senior vice president for community health at Rush University Medical Center, encouraged residents, especially seniors, to call their doctors and get check-ups.

“Now is the time to see that your diabetes and blood pressure is under control,” he said.