Peer Support, Mental Health, and Violence

May 8, 2014

For those of us working in violence prevention, it is crucial to understand the significant relationship between violence and mental health. Although not all mental and behavioral health issues cause youth to become violent, some can increase the risk of violence for children. In addition, exposure to violence can greatly contribute to a youth’s symptoms. Therefore, awareness of mental health issues in children is pivotal to reducing the impact of their exposure to and involvement with violence. President Obama has declared May 2014 as National Mental Health Awareness Month and, accordingly, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) designated today, Thursday, May 8th, as National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. The theme of this day is the value of peer support for young adults.

As the lead Violence Prevention Specialist for CHOP’s Violence Intervention Program (VIP), I see first-hand the powerful, positive impact of peer support. Through the VIP program, community-focused and trauma-informed support is provided to patients and their families who received care at CHOP for an injury resulting from violence. A key component of VIP is participation in Safety, Emotion, Loss, and Future (S.E.L.F.) psycho-educational support groups, which run once a week for approximately 12 weeks. Through S.E.L.F., our clients ages 12 and older are able to understand and process symptoms of post-traumatic stress and other results of their exposure to violence in a safe group atmosphere. They are also able to discuss and work through the more chronic stressors they experience in their everyday lives within the community (such as parental illness, school issues, family concerns, etc.). These groups are held in conjunction with Healing Hurt People, and nearly all of the 30 children currently enrolled in the VIP program attend S.E.L.F. group sessions.

It is amazing to watch our clients grow and heal through their participation in S.E.L.F.  Although a priority of the VIP program is to address the child/family’s immediate safety issues (such as school transfers and follow-up medical needs), addressing their mental health needs is an equally important part of the healing process after a traumatic, violent event. I hope the national spotlight put on mental health this month helps illuminate that although a physical wound may quickly heal, sometimes emotional trauma requires on-going care and support. Fortunately, services like S.E.L.F. help provide youth with an opportunity to cope with difficult emotions in positive ways with the invaluable support of their peers.