How Gun Violence Affects Chicago’s Youth

Guns were the leading cause of death among children and teens in 2020.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says gun violence has replaced the decades-long history of motor vehicle crashes being the leading cause of death among youth people, as of 2017 — as a result of auto-safety improvements, and increasing numbers of guns in homes across the country.

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In 2020, the murder rate with handguns was the highest in 25 years, with over 10,000 gun-related deaths of children and adults younger than 24 years old — compared to more than 7,900 in 2019.

In fact, firearm-related murders increased 35% among children and young adults, from 2019 to 2020.

And it has a significant impact on young people’s mental health.

Dion McGill, communications and community outreach manager with Strengthening Chicago’s Youth at Lurie Children’s Hospital, has worked with young people in and out of classrooms addressing mental health and trauma. He said as a veteran, he sees symptoms of PTSD in some: everything from hypersensitivity to a lack of impulse control.

“From the youth, we’re just hearing this idea that they’re living with embedded trauma and it’s something that they constantly face,” McGill said. “And I think in some cases adults don’t think about it.”

Dominque Young, a youth mentor with BUILD Chicago and a freshman at Malcolm X College, said witnessing gun violence in his community sometimes made him want to “give up on himself.”

“Trauma and shooting and stuff like that got my wiring in different places,” Young said. “BUILD helped me switch over and showed me that there’s more to life than what I was seeing in my everyday community.”

As a mentor with BUILD, a violence prevention organization, Young is going into different communities and schools in Chicago to help young people through trauma and get access to the support they need.

Indya Pinkard, is a youth leader with Communities United and a senior at YCCS West who will be attending Wilbur Wright College in the fall. She also does outreach work with students about mental health.

“[We talk about] how we can get them to stand up and share their voices,” said Pinkard. “Because a lot of the older generation, they seem to not listen to us and just brush off how we feel when go through our mental health.”

She said the city can address issues of mental health with young people by investing in after school programs, mental health centers and local parks.

Young also said he’d like to see the city invest in more therapy services.

“When you break a bone, they make a point about you going through therapy. But when you have mental health problems, they really don’t give you that therapy that you need,” Young said.

This conversation is part of a focus on mental health this month here on Chicago Tonight leading up to the June 27 premiere of the two-part documentary “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness” presented by Ken Burns on WTTW. 

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