COLLATERAL DAMAGE: The Mental health effects of gang violence – 7 days, 9 murders and countless empty bullet shells

When the gangs stop shooting, and police patrols leave, what’s left behind is a mental health minefield. Nobody knows when the gunshots will start sounding again and exactly when and just how safe it really is in the aftermath of a week of gang and taxi violence, as Vrygrond recently experienced.

This is why Sozo is a community-based safe space for youth.

As people, we often take good care of our physical health and we know how to prevent illness, by following a healthy diet, exercising, and seeking medical treatment when we have symptoms of illness.  However, when it comes to mental health care, we often don’t prioritise preventative measures, and often only start seeking help when the symptoms overwhelm us. For example, when we are in the midst of a depressive episode or are at the point of emotional burnout. However, when we are struggling mentally, it affects every aspect of our lives: our relationships, work, academics and our physical health. Consider, how often doctors recommend that patients decrease their stress levels when they have heart problems or high blood pressure. Seeking help once you recognise that you are not okay, just as you would for physical illness, can go a long way to maintaining mental health.  

Social workers often function as the ‘general practitioners’ of mental health care in communities: social workers can provide the first stage of care and identify if clients need specialized help and refer them to appropriate resources. At Sozo, the Psycho-Social Intervention (PSI) social work team focuses on promoting wellness and normalizing mental health care, in the hope that clients seek help early, and those who need specialized help are identified quickly. Just as with medical diseases, psychosocial challenges often become worse over time without any intervention 

Recently Vrygrond experienced a week of intense gun violence. During this time, Sozo’s programs were closed; when we returned, the PSI team expected that many beneficiaries would be traumatized and require containment and counselling services. However, during our debriefing sessions, we were struck by the number of clients who said, shootings are just part of living in the community. In our context, many people might experience continuous traumatic stress: This is a psychological framework that explains people’s response to trauma when they live in conditions where the danger does not go away, and the risk of further traumatization is ongoing – exposure to continuous trauma poses a serious risk to mental well-being (Kaminer & Eagle, 2010).  

Our experience this last month has emphasized the importance of continuing our focus on prevention work, teaching our beneficiaries skills to remain mentally healthy, and identifying beneficiaries who need help early. In October we join with World Mental Health Month and the theme of ‘Make mental health for all a global priority.”

People do not need to be suffering from severe mental health challenges before seeking help; seeking mental health care should be as normal as visiting a General Practitioner for physical illness. Focusing on increasing mental well-being can go a long way in preventing mental health challenges from escalating.