Fault LinesSunday 9pm ET/ 6pm PT
Joel Van Haren for Al Jazeera America

Treating Chicago’s young people traumatized by violence

A hospital-based program attends to the mental health needs of youth in some of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods

In "Survival Mode," "Fault Lines" examines the psychological toll of gun violence on children growing up in Chicago’s most dangerous and neglected communities. The film airs on Sunday, Feb. 14, at 9 p.m. Eastern time/6 p.m. Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


Deamonte Lee doesn’t play basketball in the park near his home in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood anymore. Not since the 17-year-old was randomly shot five times as he was packing his bag to head home after a game with his brother and some friends.

After the incident, he replayed the scene over and over in his mind. Nightmares caused him to jump up in the middle of the night with cold sweats and his ears ringing. They got so bad that he had to have his brother sleep in his room with him.

“A guy just walked in the park,” Lee said, once again recalling what took place around 9 p.m. on October 1, 2014. “A couple of seconds later he was reaching for something. I didn’t know what it was. Just froze up, and he just started shooting. Once he started shooting, I just ran. As I was running, they was just hitting me, but I just kept going.”

After fleeing the park, he lay on the ground waiting for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He’d been hit in the stomach, pelvis, back, butt and the leg.

“As I was sitting there, I was looking at myself and I was asking myself, ‘Why this happen to me?'” Lee said.

He was temporarily unable to move one side of his body and stayed in John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County on Chicago’s West Side for 17 days.

About a week into his hospital stay, Lee met Andy Wheeler, a social worker who helped him address his non-physical wounds.

“A hospital is a place of healing and recovery. So just like people after a traumatic injury have to go through medical recovery and physical recovery, they have to go through an emotional and psychological and spiritual recovery, as well,” said Wheeler. “This is a time where people are reflecting.” 

Wheeler is part of a hospital-based program called Healing Hurt People-Chicago, which offers therapy and support to young patients with traumatic injuries who end up at Stroger and the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital on the city’s South Side.

Despite the often tragic circumstances, when a young person lands in the hospital, it offers psychologists and social workers a rare opportunity to intervene in a deadly cycle of violence and trauma that’s impacting many of Chicago's kids.

Mind and body

In 2015, close to 3,000 people were shot in Chicago, the highest number of any American city. And 2016 began with 51 homicides in January, compared with only 29 a year earlier. In the past four years, more than a thousand kids younger than 17 were shot in Chicago, with shootings concentrated in areas with the highest poverty and unemployment rates.

As I was sitting there, I was looking at myself and I was asking myself, ‘Why this happen to me?’

Deamonte Lee

Chicago high school student

The problem of youth confronted with extreme levels of violence extends far beyond Chicago’s rough neighborhoods. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice created the Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence to address what it called “a national crisis.”

The group issued a report that examined various consequences of the violence, crime and abuse that affect an estimated 46 million American children. When young people experience or witness extreme violence, it said, the ensuing psychological trauma can have severe implications for development, brain functioning and health outcomes that reach well into adulthood.

Bradley Stolbach, a psychologist at Comer Hospital and clinical director for Healing Hurt People-Chicago, sees hundreds of kids each year who are physically and psychologically impacted by violence.

Stolbach says it’s common for patients to have reactions that make them feel as if they’re back in the moment when they were injured. They have panic attacks, flashbacks and can feel like they need to fight or flee. Their symptoms can resemble those of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to Carol Reese, a trained chaplain and Episcopal priest who is also Stroger Hospital’s violence prevention coordinator, “Over 40 percent of our patients and their family members have PTSD symptoms. So we know that people come in here with either mental health concerns before they got to the hospital and certainly are leaving with the impact of a traumatic injury.”

But Stolbach points out that the PTSD diagnosis was created specifically for adults and doesn’t really take into account the context of childhood development.

Many young patients exhibit complex trauma symptoms that can only be addressed by having a deeper understanding of their backgrounds and how they may have previously been impacted by violence or adversity.

“Even the reaction to being shot is pretty complicated,” Stolbach said, “because it’s shaped by everything that’s come before and exposure to lots of other trauma.”

Addressing trauma

Ultimately, what the team involved in Healing Hurt People-Chicago is trying to accomplish is to stop a violent event from derailing a person’s life—and they hope that by treating their trauma, they can prevent future incidents from happening.

“People really struggle with questions of, ‘Why did this happen to me? What does this mean?’ or how it changes your overall identity, how it affects your relationship with the world around you,” explained Wheeler. “For a lot of people there is no reason. All of a sudden you’re just suffering a great deal, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and it’s hard to make sense of that.”

While working with Wheeler, Deamonte Lee joined a discussion group affiliated with Healing Hurt People, which was made up of about eight other young men who had also been violently injured.

Deamonte Lee was shot five times on a basketball court in the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale on October 1, 2014.
Joel Van Haren for Al Jazeera America

“Everybody in there my age. Everybody I could actually talk and relate to,” Lee recalled. “Everybody was African-American, everybody in there had come from the hood, everybody went through a struggle, and it was just real interesting to hear about everybody’s story.”

Today, Lee is not quite back to his old self. His one time back on the basketball court where he was shot gave him cold chills. He hasn’t returned again. He rarely leaves his home except to go to school, the gym or a friend’s house. And he’s extra vigilant walking around his neighborhood.

“When people walk past with hoods on, hands in their pockets, I watch them,” Lee said. “If somebody walking behind me, and they just been walking there for the past couple of minutes, I’ll stop and let them walk ahead of me.”

But he credits Healing Hurt People with helping him get through one of the most debilitating after-effects of the attack: reliving the shooting in his dreams. When he spoke to “Fault Lines,” more than a year after the attack, he reported that the nightmares had stopped.

Further, he was able to connect what he was experiencing while asleep to discussions he'd had in the support group.

“I actually kind of realized what trauma was when I was having the dreams. I’m like, I see what actually being traumatized means.” Lee said. “It’s good when you can talk to somebody who can actually relate to what happened to you.”


Additional reporting by Anjali Kamat

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