Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Communities United, an intergenerational racial justice organization in Chicago, are working together to center the leadership and voices of Black and Brown young men of color in their ongoing efforts to transform the mental and behavioral healthcare system.

Core to this effort is Ujima, a group of young men of color ages 14-21 who have conducted a research study throughout the duration of the pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of Black and Brown young men in Chicago, culminating in a report titled “Changing the Beat of Mental Health.” Ujima, the group’s name, is a Swahili word meaning collective work and responsibility.

The research identifies systemic inequities and the normalization of trauma as key drivers of worsening mental health among young men of color. It calls for stakeholders and systems to respond to the urgency of addressing the mental health of young men of color by removing barriers that prevent them from sharing their full range of experiences and creating more racially just systems that heal without causing further harm.

In their research, Ujima youth conducted 41 surveys, 11 interviews, and two youth-led focus groups with their peers in which they asked about mental health.

“This research allows people to listen to our lived experiences of how young men of color have challenges with mental health, and why we do not access what we need. And we can finally do something about it through deeper partnership.” – Deshawn Smith, Ujima Researcher.

Key Findings From the Report:

  • Young men of color see a deep connection between systemic inequities and mental health, and often internalize the blame.
  • Trauma is often normalized for young men of color.
  • Young men of color feel that systems are not built to truly support their mental health and wellness, and that young people cannot share their full experiences and emotions without negative repercussions. For example, young people fear involvement with the child protective system and also fear being institutionalized by the mental health system.
  • 55% of young men of color report that they would consider professional counseling if offered the chance.
  • Young men of color want to be seen for the assets they bring to their communities and in our city. They want to be viewed for their full identities and potential for leadership.

“Hearing directly from young men of color that more than half are facing mental health challenges; that how they are portrayed negatively impacts their identity; and that trauma is normalized for them should challenge adults leading all our institutions to think differently about how we are serving them,” said Dr. Tom Shanley, Lurie Children’s CEO. “We are grateful to the Ujima Project youth and Lurie Children’s is committed to addressing these recommendations, together with government, institutional and community partners – with the voice of our youth at the center. We are going to include men of color to shape mental health policy and practice. And, we need to better engage young people of color as leaders and agents of change as we shape mental health practice and policy transformation.”

Key Recommendations

Recommendations from the report included creating:

  • A pilot project for young men of color to shape the mental health practice and policy transformation that involves them as leaders and agents of change.
  • Targeted goals for bringing more mental health professionals into the system who are people of color and embrace the vision young men of color have for healing within themselves and their communities.
  • A free and accessible mental health system that connects young men of color to resources to support their mental health and wellness.
  • Create change to child and family facing care systems, including child protective services and mental health systems, through the leadership of youth of color and families. The youth identified that the mental health system is often inaccessible, and when available can compound distress and be harmful through bureaucracy and a focus on institutionalization.
  • A free and accessible community-based model that infuses art, hip hop and other forms of music, physical activity, and e-sports and online gaming. There should also be classes on de-stressing and coping mechanisms for young men of color, leadership development, restorative practice and de-escalation year-round.
  • Young men of color recommend turning abandoned buildings into these centers within communities across Chicago. These centers should be run by people from the community. Transportation (like bus cards) and food should also be provided in these centers.

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