Learn trauma-informed care, how to de-escalate conflict with free South West mental health skills training

BACKYARDS — City-sponsored mental health literacy trainings are held throughout the summer to equip communities with violence prevention and de-escalation tools.

The trainings are free to neighbors thanks to funding from the city Health Department and the Public Safety Coordinating Center, said Kathryn Calderon, director of mental health operations for the city Health Department.

The goal of the sessions is to build a network of trauma-informed care across the city at a “hyperlocal level,” Calderon said.

“We’re hearing from the community, from leaders and from our providers that more training is needed to build mental health skills,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are in people-serving roles, providing support, and they don’t feel equipped to have the necessary skills or toolkit to be able to deal with what they’re seeing without having that formalized mental health training . “

There are 10 four-week cohorts taking place across the city, covering 15 communities most affected by violence. The once-a-week two-hour sessions have now ended in Little Village and West and East Garfield Park, but the others are still ongoing or have not yet started.

The program:

  • Englewood & West Englewood: July 12 and 19
  • North Lawndale: July 14 and 21
  • The back of the yards: July 12 and 19
  • Greater Grand Crossing & South Shore: July 14 and 21
  • Auburn Gresham: July 26 and August 2, 9 and 16
  • Chicago Lawn: July 28 and August 4, 11 and 18
  • Austin and West Humboldt Park: July 26 and August 2, 9 and 16
  • West Pullman & Roseland: July 28 and August 4, 11 and 18

Organizers from the Center for Healing and Justice Through Sport — whose mission is to connect the benefits of physical activity with trauma-informed care — lead the training sessions. Pharlone Toussaint, the group’s director of external affairs, said sports and physical activity are underutilized tactics for dealing with trauma, especially among young people.

“The idea is how do we train people to understand that the brain is a very malleable organ, and if we can understand and respect it, we can actually use it to heal and reverse trauma,” she said.

credit: Madison Saavedra/Block Club Chicago
Educators from the Center for Healing Through Justice and Sports lead participants through an activity at Davis Square Park on June 28, 2022.

The sessions begin with making this neuroscience “really relatable to everyday people, so they can recognize that the trauma they see on the streets and in these communities are actually very natural impulses that happen to people after they are experienced tremendous stress,” Toussaint said.

The class also teaches de-escalation tactics to help people manage their stress through “patterned, rhythmic, repetitive activities,” Toussaint said. It could be something as simple as bouncing on a ball or going for a walk, she said.

“These types of activities are calming for the brain and help us regulate ourselves so that we can get back to a place where we can connect with each other so that we can finally use our prefrontal cortex and start to think rationally and make more rational decisions,” Toussaint said.

Calderon and Toussaint said they are hearing good feedback from participants.

Vincent Carter, outreach specialist for the nonprofit Transforming Re-Entry Services, attends Back of the Yards sessions with colleagues. He works with people in many different situations — whether it’s addiction, homelessness or previous incarceration — and said he’s been “pleasantly surprised” by the classes and skills he’s learned.

“It’s already amazingly parallel to what I’m doing in the field,” Carter said. “We have to find unique ways to socially collect information from people who don’t want to give you that information. Many people will not be very vocal about what their real needs are. They don’t tell you what the real problem is. These are things that will definitely help with data collection.

Classes are open to a wide range of community members, essentially “anyone who [working] on the ground,” Calderon said.

“I can’t say enough how much mental health needs have grown [throughout] the pandemic,” she said. “People in systems where they normally haven’t seen as many mental health needs are seeing a lot more and feeling, ‘How do we deal with this crisis?’ Or how do we de-escalate the situation?’

credit: Madison Saavedra/Block Club Chicago
Participants in one of the Center for Healing through Justice and Sports classes in Davis Square Park, June 28, 2022.

Cheryl Maria White, another participant in the Back of the Yards cohort, said she decided to join the class because she works with many young people who may come from difficult backgrounds. Her work began by donating suitcases to children leaving the foster care system and evolved into a group called Pink Lemons that offers mentoring to teenagers and adults, she said.

“Most of these youth are experiencing more than one trauma,” White said. “I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t understand trauma-informed care and try to add some kind of healing and what I like to call micro-affirmations into everything we do. There are few workshops that target non-mental health professionals, but we are spot on with these populations. We definitely need to be informed.”

Calderon said he believes the trainings will benefit the participants’ work and help them manage their own fatigue to prevent burnout.

“I feel like the compounding trauma and ongoing trauma of our current time really weighs on everyone in it, so I’m really excited to provide support not only for people to feel more equipped to have tools, but to get that support themselves Calderon said.

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