Shootings on the West Side have made it so young men there were more likely to be killed than U.S. soldiers were during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, a newly released study has found.
The study, published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, found 18- to 29-year-old men in 2020 and 2021 were more likely to be killed in a shooting in the 60624 ZIP code, which largely covers Garfield Park, than a U.S. soldier was in the Afghanistan war or a soldier in an Army combat brigade that fought in Iraq between 2003-2009.
And the trauma that warlike violence causes will linger with neighbors the rest of their lives, affecting their mental and physical health, according to the research and local violence interrupters. Even neighbors who aren’t immediately affected by a shooting and the people who are trained to prevent and respond to gun violence face struggles, violence interrupters said.
Interrupters said the physical trauma of the violence can be scarring for survivors and cause lifelong health complications. Local nonviolence workers said the shootings affect young men’s mental state by desensitizing them to violence, and that can lead to depression, social withdrawal and other mental health complications.
“It plays like a video clip that is on repeat in their minds forever,” said Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. “It can affect sleep, focus at school and lead to drug addictions to self-medicate from the trauma.”
Brandon Del Pozo, an assistant professor at Brown University who conducted the study and a former New York City police officer, said the level of violence, the roots of it and the effect it had on neighbors in Garfield Park in 2021 and 2022, is similar to what he saw on patrol in some of the most violent neighborhoods in New York in the ’90s, when murders and violence skyrocketed.
“In the most dangerous places in Chicago, it is very bad for young men, and it is worse than our own understanding of war,” Del Pozo said.
Nellis said shootings leave mental and emotional wounds for people that desensitize them to violence and can make them constantly live on edge. He said bracing for a shooting has become instinctive and second nature for some West Side residents.
Nellis has heard shootings from his own backyard in North Lawndale on more than one occasion, and it’s left him shaken, he said. He and his daughter once had to duck under a table in their home when they heard eight shots near their house.
There are less obvious impacts, too: For example, for young men, violence and its lasting trauma can affect their job prospects, and the violence can leave victims who lack health insurance with thousands of dollars in medical debt, violence experts said.
Del Pozo said he conducted the study to get around partisan views of gun violence statistics, and he used war as a benchmark of life-threatening trauma that could effectively make anyone understand the level of violence in affected neighborhoods.
Del Pozo and Nellis said that unlike wartime violence — where service members leave a war zone after their tour is complete — people living in communities like Garfield Park are constantly surrounded by warlike levels of violence for years, if not decades.
Though the number of people killed citywide declined last year — with 695 murders reported compared to 804 in 2021, according to police data — activists said more work must be done.
But many violence prevention advocates are wary of just throwing more police at the problem, saying it can perpetuate the cycle of violence.
“I think our criminal justice system is failing us, no matter who we are,” Nellis said. “We are spending unbelievable amounts of money putting people in prison, which just traps them in a cycle of violence they can’t escape.”
Del Pozo, Nellis and other experts said the solution is to make significant investments in the future of West Side communities. This includes investing in small businesses, providing better housing options, making public spaces such as parks safer, giving more support to violence interrupters and expanding extracurricular opportunities for children.
“We need to bring people hope,” said Francisco “Frank” Perez, associate vice president of UCAN, which provides comfort and services to families in the immediate aftermath of shootings. “We have to do more entrepreneurial things and grow the community and give people more opportunities to excel.”
Providing mental health care could also be key, experts said. Black people are far less likely to receive mental health care treatment despite feeling more emotional distress, such as sadness and hopelessness than white people, according to McLean Hospital, the psychiatric teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.
“Mental health treatment is very important,” Nellis said. “Black and Brown communities don’t really value mental health treatment that much, and it needs to change.”
More and more often in recent years, experts have said it is these kinds of efforts that can lead to a reduction in violence and long-term changes.
Outreach and interruption groups have drawn increasing interest. They often focus on hiring and training locals to identify potential conflict and the people most at risk to commit or be victimized by violence. Those workers can then recognize problems and step in to mentor youths and prevent shootings and other crimes before they happen.
Gun violence victimization among young people who engaged with Communities Partnering 4 Peace partners decreased by 33 percent in the 18 months after workers engaged with youth, the organization said in 2021. Chicago CRED leaders said in 2022 that intervention programs helped shootings drop by nearly a third in West Garfield Park and nearly 57 percent in North Lawndale.
But the violence has effects for those workers, too: Many violence interrupters suffer from PTSD from having direct involvement in stopping violence, and they are often not seen as credible in the eyes of law enforcement or hospital workers, according to a study by the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Perez said his employees are required to see a clinical therapist monthly to deal with the trauma they face.
“Almost all of our staff are from and live in the community. They have a vested interest in seeing these changes,” Perez said.