What do these things have to do with violence prevention? They are all social determinants of mental health, conditions that play a role in shaping the mental health of individuals and communities. And, when these conditions are poor – and there is a low level of community advocacy to fix these problems – it can lead to higher rates of violence.
Joining our week-long “Conversations on Social Change: Preventing Violence” is Tiffany McDowell, Ph.D., program manager and research associate at the Adler School of Professional Psychology’s Institute on Social Exclusion (ISE). Here we explore with Dr. McDowell the environmental factors engrained in communities, especially the most vulnerable, that help keep underserved populations marginalized and crime rates high.
Q. What are some examples of these social determinants and how they affect communities?
A. There are many social determinants of both mental health and violence, such as employment opportunities, safety and housing, that can affect communities in a variety of ways. For example, we have been working in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood to look at how a lack of access to nutritional foods and high levels of lead are both linked to aggression and violence in children.
Q. What can happen if these environmental factors such as access to healthy foods and high lead levels are not addressed?
A. The more that poor conditions like these go untreated in a community, the more the collective mental health and well-being of that community deteriorates and violence increases.
Consider the specific factors above in neighborhoods without adequate resources and support systems to help improve the community. Often, when children in these communities act aggressively, regardless of the environmental factors causing it, they are automatically labeled as “behavioral issues.” These children tend to fall through the cracks and then get funneled into the judicial system, and the environmental factors that contributed to their violent behavior go unfixed.
Q. Why is this especially a problem in underserved areas?
A. For one, these are the areas where environmental and social conditions seem to be worse, and populations are systematically marginalized due to poverty, race or other factors. Another reason often is the lower level of collective advocacy in vulnerable communities.
For example, our work with lead and violence came about recently as the Northfolk Southern Railroad plans to move the railroad’s train yard further into the Englewood neighborhood. When this happens, more than 100 homes will be demolished. This presents a physical problem with lead being leaked into the environment, and a social issue as homes are lost and residents feels like they are being used.
In the same situation, other communities would likely stand up for themselves and try to make a change, but people in vulnerable areas like Englewood often feel they as a community don’t have the economic viability, social standing or political pull to stand up for injustices happening around them.
Studies have found a link between low levels of collective advocacy and higher crime rates in communities. When people think they don’t have the power to advocate for themselves and their communities, picking up a gun may feel like the only way to get their voice heard.
Join the Conversation
Read blog posts from our faculty, join in our discussions on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. We will be using #WhatIfChicago, created by Chicago Ideas Week as a way to find solutions for how to stop gun violence in Chicago and the nation.