Chris Patterson spent 10 years and two months transferring in and out of federal prisons, where he started his sentence in 2000 for a bank robbery in 1998. By the time he was 17, he had lived in 30 different foster homes, barely seeing his parents as his mother bounced in and out of violent relationships and his dad struggled with an alcohol addiction. In his late teens, he grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on the North Side and by his 12th birthday, he was a gang member just like his brothers. 

“From as far back as I can remember, I remember being scared and violent,” Patterson said, recalling an early desire to kill one of his mother’s violent boyfriends when he was just seven years old.

Today, at age 46, Patterson is the senior director of program and policy at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. He, along with executive director Teny Gross, created the nonprofit in 2016 to help prevent and cure violence through mental-health support. Between 2011 and 2014, while working for CeaseFire and other violence prevention programs, Patterson witnessed firsthand some of Chicago’s most violent crimes.

“What I was witnessing every day growing up in Cabrini-Green was violence,” Patterson said. “I knew people who got shot [and] both my brothers were killed. I used to think that because of my circumstances, I was wired differently and it brought the worst out of me.”

Fast forward to summer 2020, where Chicago’s violence has increased by 47% since this time last year, according to the Chicago Police Department (CPD). As of Aug. 1, up to 40 youth between the ages of 20 months and 17 have been killed. This includes the most recent fatal shooting of 17-year-old activist Caleb Reed of GoodKids MadCity on July 31 and nine-year-old Janari Ricks in the Cabrini Green neighborhood later that same day. 

Experts in the field believe that adequate and accessible mental-health support systems — such as behavioral therapy and trauma counseling — could help decrease the amount of shootings and fatalities occurring in Black and Brown neighborhoods across Chicago. These resources could help residents suffering from mental illnesses and traumatic experiences. 

Patterson, for example, used his personal childhood trauma and experiences with crime and gang life to shape the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago’s mission: dismantling violence and building peace through the principles and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in  nonviolence. Across its three locations in Austin, West Garfield Park and Back of the Yards, Patterson said, 90% of the nonprofit’s staff are former gang members and formerly incarcerated people.

“Mental health facilities are almost non-existent in Black communities that we live in and serve,” Patterson said. “And when they do exist, in a lot of cases, not all, the professionals who are working with mental health aren’t trained in the dynamics that lead to sitting across from someone who is a perpetrator of violence.”

Those dynamics include cultural sensitivity and awareness. For instance, Patterson said white mental-health counselors with masters degrees will come to work in Black Chicago communities without any experience in the trauma of Black people or any understanding of their neighborhoods. 

“We need people who understand the generations of pain in Black neighborhoods to come in and help our people understand the trauma,” Patterson said. “It’s important to have people who look like them, talk like them and understand them.”

One program that works at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, according to Patterson, is its job-readiness and behavioral health initiative, called READI Chicago. READI (Rapid Employment and Development Initiative) Chicago began in 2018 with 90 men ages 18 to 32 from neighborhoods including Austin, North Lawndale, West Garfield Parkand and Englewood. These men were among the most likely to be shot or shoot someone. For an 18-month period, the men participated in transitional jobs and cognitive behavioral therapy.

After a year of the program, Patterson said he witnessed a change among the men — all former gang members — who only a month earlier were at war with one another in their neighborhoods. Patterson said he saw them interacting positively in therapy sessions and attending peace marches together for victims of violence across the city. 

“The emphasis was on changing the way the men thought about violence,” Patterson said. “It wasn’t because they had something in common like a job. It came because they all understood they were all hurt.”

Chris Patterson standing outside of the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago | Photo by Brittany Pierre / The TRiiBE

Today, there are five free city-run mental health facilities in Chicago and in early 2017, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced a new partnership with Cook County Health (CCH) to provide mental health services to children and youth at the Roseland Neighborhood Health Center. Back in 2012, there were 12 mental health facilities, but former Mayor Rahm Emanuel shut down six of the 12 facilities in Auburn Gresham, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Woodlawn, Morgan Park and Back of the Yards. 

Since the closures, some residents on the West Side came together to open their own mental-health facility. The Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers spent four years hitting the streets, asking residents to sign a petition to allow residents to vote to open a mental health program in the neighborhood. In October 2019, the Encompassing Center, located at 3019 W. Harrison, opened its doors to residents in North Lawndale and Garfield Park, providing individual and group counseling with a laser focus on trauma. 

“With a lack of resources, we see a lot of the things that happen where people are in survival mode,” said Jennifer Smith, executive director of The Encompassing Center. “They aren’t processing through some of those generational traumas and things that are not normal become normalized.”

Over the last several months, Smith said, The Encompassing Center has made good connections with the local juvenile justice diversion programs and with local churches to provide mental health counseling to youth. Smith believes that young people on the West and South sides are mainly violent because they have lost hope. 

Prior to COVID-19, the center’s staff was offering services inside of a few Chicago Public Schools (CPS) — including North Lawndale College Prep and Jensen Miller Scholastic Academy. The center offered expressive therapy to students through art as a way to help heal their traumas of community violence. The Encompassing Center also works with parents to help them understand what trauma looks like for their younger children and teens. 

Smith said since the center and its program is still new, there isn’t much data to provide on success rates. However, she did say the programs brought about more parental support, which she believes helped heal some of the traumatized youth.

“We began to see more parent engagement, which is always tough in the schools when working with students,” Smith said. “Being able to have the parent participate in some of the art therapy allowed a space for the kids to be themselves and just trust the process of healing.”

Smith said that one element the center is emphasizing is trust. She believes the lack of distrust between youth and authority is one main impact on community violence. 

“People have to trust you and what you’re doing and that is a big barrier in many of our Black communities,” Smith said. 

Now that schools are closed, the center has been offering Zoom and Skype sessions to young people and just started a virtual camp, called Superheroes Training Camp, offering once-a-week sessions using the power of superheroes and pop culture figures to help participating youth process trauma and anxiety. 

“We are hoping to help young people think differently and process the violent things they are experiencing in their communities, Most times on their own blocks,” Smith said.

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During a press conference on June 29, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that $11 million from the CARES Act  will go towards new healthcare investments in Auburn Gresham and North Lawndale as part of the Invest South/West Initiative —  her plan to invest in 10 Chicago neighborhoods on the South and West sides. The two new developments include the Healthy Lifestyle Hub in Auburn Gresham and the North Lawndale Surgical and Ambulatory Care Center at Mt. Sinai Hospital. These developments, however, are not a part of the six city-funded mental health clinics.  

“In a lot of ways the city is making an acknowledgement that it’s never made before under previous administrations in order to address mental health,” Patterson said. “We’ve been given so many playbooks to prevent violence, and they all kind of look the same.”

Patterson said that city officials’ strategy to the violence is usually incarceration. He criticized CPD’s decision to deploy 1,200 additional police over the July 4th weekend.

“We have to realize that violence is more complex than just shooting someone and it can’t be solved with just going to jail,” Patterson said. “A lot of people feel we are slaves to violence. Chicago violence isn’t necessarily senseless. It makes sense to those who are trapped in it.”

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.