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How gun violence is impacting mental health of Philadelphia's youth

How Philadelphia gun violence impacts mental health of city's youth
How Philadelphia gun violence impacts mental health of city's youth 05:36

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- In a city with near daily gun violence, the sound of police sirens and the roar of emergency vehicles often become a part of life in some high-crime areas, leaving the ear-piercing noise nearly ignored. 

For those young people who are becoming more of the victims of gun violence, their trauma seeps through and is ever-present.

At the height of the pandemic, Philadelphia saw a record homicide rate with more than 500 victims -- 38 were teenagers, 13-18 years old and the majority of them Black.

For a list of gun violence resources in Philadelphia, click here.

For Charity James, it's personal having lived with the scars of gun violence for decades.

"When I was 12 years old, I was shot. My brother, he was shot. My brother was 23," James said. "I was 12 and the person that shot us was my cousin. He was 16 years old. My brother died and I survived."

James recollects that moment as if it were yesterday. 

At 37, she continues to live with the scars from that day, both physically and emotionally.

"A wound here from my trachea. I have a shot wound here," James said, while pointing out where she was shot.  

Whether you're experiencing gun violence directly or by proxy, the impact can leave permanent wounds.

"It just left me with a lot of lasting effects such as I have severe depression. I have anxiety." James said.

James says her journey toward healing included talking to therapists. She still does.

She's been sharing her story by working with NAMI.

NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness and stands as the country's largest grassroots mental health organization.

Through the organization, James can reach out to young people in Philadelphia directly impacted by gun violence.

Learn more about the struggle kids are facing; check out our Kids in Crisis coverage

"Our mission is to build better lives for the millions of Americans who are impacted by any sort of mental health condition. Whether that's a mental illness or trauma," Becca Lane revealed NAMI's purpose. "We do that through support groups, we have a whole variety of support groups, advocacy. We provide resources and we also provide education programs."

Lane works with NAMI and has struggled with her own mental health issues over the years.

On this day, we caught up with Lane and James at Boys Latin High School in West Philadelphia.

"It's NAMI Ending the Silence, the hope is to end the silence for students to not feel like they need to keep everything inside anymore," Lane said. "For them to know by listening to me do the larger presentation and Charity, who shared her story, to listen and relate to it and see also that real people experience these things."

The all-boys school is still reeling from the loss of one of its students, shot and killed in September after a football scrimmage in the Roxborough area of Philadelphia.

"At Boys Latin, we've been coming regularly at least four times a year for the last five and a half years," Lane said. "I just feel it's so important for males to hear this message, especially in the Black community. I know there's a lot more stigma."

According to statistics, symptoms of mental health distress in children appear within days of being exposed to a single shooting. 

In a study conducted by Penn Medicine in 2021 of the 2,629 shooting incidents, 31% had one or more corresponding mental health-related emergency department visits in the 60 days following the shooting.

The study revealed a significant increase in pediatric mental health-related emergency department visits following incidents of neighborhood gun violence.

Most pronounced in the two weeks after the shooting, among children residing closest to where the violence occurred, and among children exposed to multiple shootings.

"We are seeing an increase in youth particularly younger youth who are impacted by gun violence. For example as shooting victim's themselves," Dr. Leah Brogan said. 

We sat down with Brogan, a psychologist with the Center for Violence Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Tami Benton, who is chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. 

They talk about the clear discrepancy in youngsters chronically exposed to more violence.

"They've witnessed gunshots and shootings on more occasions than one. Their parents are traumatized. Those youngsters tend to have worse outcomes," Benson said 

Without the proper treatment and intervention, the lingering effects are detrimental. 

"That really becomes the other issue for those who are chronically exposed or those who are predisposed because they might already be struggling with depression or anxiety not receiving the kind of interventions that they need has led to pretty poor outcomes," Benson said. "Including chronic depression, PTSD and suicide attempts."

"If I can't help them here, they're connected to resources so they can get the help they need," Na'khia Washington said.

School counselors like Washington at Boys Latin work closely with organizations like NAMI providing mental health outlets for students in crisis.

Despite extensive data and NAMI's outreach, the organization has its share of limitations.

"One of our biggest limitations is time," Lane said. "We need more volunteers to get involved."

The link between gun violence exposure and mental health-related illnesses seems undeniable. But doctors say there are resources out there to directly put a dent in the growing problem.

"In Philadelphia, there are community-based mental health organizations and providers, who are trained in evidence-based practices to address trauma," Benson said. 

It all comes down to human connection, according to James.

"The main thing is just being able to talk to someone who can relate to you, someone who has lost someone to murder, to violence," James said.

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