Creating a mental health framework for individuals and communities hurt by gun violence

Gun violence is a public health crisis that deeply impacts the wellbeing of people and their communities. In Pittsburgh, no group is more affected by gun violence than young, Black men. They are 60 times more likely to die from gun violence compared to the city-wide average, and 50 times more likely compared to the U.S. average. As a result, they are over-represented among those with non-fatal gun injuries.

While Pittsburgh has hospital-based violence intervention programs that help individuals cope and recover from nonfatal gun injuries immediately after an incident, they’re not designed to help months later when mental health issues like PTSD may occur.

In 2023, the increasing amount of gun violence in Allegheny County prompted the Department of Human Services to make a $50 million commitment to violence reduction initiatives through 2028. The money is funding various countywide and community-based organizations that support these initiatives, including mental health services. The Neighborhood Resilience Project (NRP) is serving as the county convener, or “quarterback,” to coordinate these efforts.

Dr. Daniel Salahuddin, Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Psychiatry at Pitt, and his researchers are helping as well. He and his team are creating a game plan for the NRP and its teammates that will help reduce gun violence through better mental health.

DR. DANIEL SALAHUDDIN

“We’re mapping out the behavioral health services and other related supports that already exist in Allegheny County especially as they relate to young, Black men and gun violence,” Dr. Salahuddin explains. “We’re creating a better understanding of what’s out there and what’s not. With the map, stakeholders will be able to clearly see the assets we have, as well as the gaps.”

The map will give the NRP and the entire collaborative a framework for developing additional behavioral health services that are welcoming and culturally relevant. “The research creates an opportunity to assess and address social and structural barriers that prevent people who’ve experienced violence from getting the mental health services they need to recover and live healthy lives,” Dr. Salahuddin adds.

To date, Dr. Salahuddin’s team has interviewed 12 community organizations out of 30. So far, the team has talked to community activists; organization directors, presidents, and CEOs; social workers; and therapists. “It’s humbling,” he says. “There’s a lot of dedicated people doing good work. On their behalf, we’re condensing the information they’re giving us into a concise summary of results that’s easy to understand and use in real time.”

What has the team found so far? “None of what we’re finding is a surprise, but it IS difficult to swallow,” Dr. Salahuddin says.

An overall theme is the glaring lack of investment in communities. “It comes down to how much attention is received in a Black or Brown community vs a white community — and what that says about the value of Black and Brown lives,” says Dr. Salahuddin. “A key aspect of preventing gun violence includes meeting people’s basic needs and helping them access resources.”  

Other themes include the general lack of mental health support for those who are impacted by gun violence and the ripple effect the violence has on people who both witness and perpetrate the violence, as well as their families, friends, and the community at large.

There’s also the theme of normalization. “When someone is shot and killed, people’s grief becomes entwined with chronic trauma,” he adds. “This can make people numb to violence. It becomes a normal part of life. However, it’s NOT normal and should never be.”

For Dr. Salahuddin and team, the emerging themes are why the study is so important. “The study and the funding are bringing organizations together to collectively create a culturally-aligned mental health plan for Pittsburgh’s underserved communities,” says. “Finally, we have more tools and the means to break down barriers to accessing appropriate mental health services, reducing gun violence, and restoring people’s wellbeing, resiliency, and sense of self.”

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