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Centering Healing for Black Youth and Young Adults

by Tom Hanlon / Dec 12, 2022

Jarrett Lewis

Jarrett Lewis is developing ongoing mental health services to help Black youths process violent and racial trauma—and flourish despite that trauma. He is partnering with Champaign schools now and hopes to expand his offering at other schools as well.

On the day that Jarrett Lewis gave a talk on gun violence, he found out that he had a cousin who was shot and killed.

Lewis, an assistant professor in Educational Psychology in the College of Education, soldiered through the pain and the talk. Suffice it to say that he knows whereof he speaks.

It is exactly that type of violence—particularly involving Black individuals—that led Lewis to his research on how Black youths and young adults experience psychological trauma and how they heal from that trauma. He is currently conducting a study, funded through the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, at Franklin STEAM Academy.

“Through the Office of Public Engagement, directed by Emily Stone, we have formed a partnership between the Counseling Psychology Doctoral Program in our Educational Psychology Department, the Clinical Community Psychology Program in the Psychology Department, and the Master of Social Work Program at the School of Social Work,” Lewis says. “Our group is partnering with Champaign Unit 4 School District and Franklin, a middle school in Champaign, and their inhouse mental health practitioners to enhance trauma-focused, race-conscious mental health services with a focus on Black/African American youth.”

Franklin has identified its main challenges as the negative effects of gun violence on student well-being, Lewis says. “In the past few years, they’ve had everything from one student shooting another student to family members of students who have been shot and killed by other family members. These events certainly complicate the healing process that we’re trying to facilitate with youth.”

Mental Health Services for Violent and Racial Trauma

Lewis’s work centers around violent trauma and racial trauma. He describes violent trauma as recurrent or chronic exposure to violence in one’s home, school, or community; racial trauma can be described as race-based traumatic stress involving recurring experiences of race-based discrimination or prejudice, often resulting in negative psychological and emotional outcomes.

“We’re developing some ongoing mental health services in the school, starting with group-based services,” Lewis says. “We’re trying a few different theoretical frameworks. One is thinking about how we could incorporate interpersonal process therapy, which is a focus less on the details of the traumatic events that these kids have experienced and more on the impact that it has had on them and how it is a shared experience.”

“Another is integrating work from the Radical Hope framework, which helps youth understand that situations that seem hopeless or dire do not have to prevent them from becoming a version of themselves that they desire—a self that can flourish and be fulfilled—and that this can occur through collective healing."

Intervention to Begin in Spring 2023

Lewis and his university- and school-based collaborators are designing a six- to eight-week intervention that they will pilot in the spring. The intervention will help students build emotional strength and foster resilience. The intervention will incorporate cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal process therapy, teaching students how to engage in relaxation and breathing exercises to calm themselves in times of trauma, reflect on their shared experiences, and employ culturally-informed strategies to addressing the negative effects of trauma. A central focus of the intervention is addressing interactive effect of violence exposure and race-based stress. He and a team of counseling psychology doctoral students and school-based practitioners will lead group therapy sessions this fall at Franklin, which will be informed by student, parent, and school administrator perspectives.

“A goal of the project is to develop a model for how others can approach and conduct school-based mental health research addressing racial and violent trauma, particularly research involving mental health interventions as opposed to studies exploring mental health outcomes,” Lewis says. “We’re also thinking critically about situating the trauma in the context of racism or race-related stress. Since 2020, when George Floyd was killed, we’ve seen more researchers have interest in this area, but it’s not necessarily clear how to work through some of the structures that are upheld by ongoing experiences with racism and violence that can be re-traumatizing for youth in the school context."

Benefits Graduate Students, As Well

In addition to serving the school and the students, Lewis’s project will benefit graduate students who are receiving mental health training at the University of Illinois, whether through the Educational Psychology Department, the School of Social Work, or the Psychology Department.

“Dr. Lydia Khuri on our team has been leading efforts to develop a practicum training site for master’s and PhD students,” he explains. “It will provide graduate students training in school-based trauma-informed mental health services, and it will help them understand and apply an implementation model to sustainably provide culturally-informed services via school-based mental health programs.”

Helping Black Males Reframe Manhood

Lewis originally became interested in this line of research when, as a graduate student at DePaul University, he counseled minoritized youth and families in urban, low-income contexts. One 16-year-old Black male had seen his father figure shot and killed. “He watched him die in front of their family home,” Lewis recalls. The young man was stoic throughout all the counseling sessions until the very end, when he broke down and cried profusely.

“At the end of our time in therapy, he said he didn’t want another therapist because they wouldn’t understand his situation,” Lewis says. “I took two things from that experience. One was that representation does matter. It was good for him to see a Black male in my position who could connect with his lived experiences. Another thing was that we, as scholars and practitioners, haven’t quite figured out how to clinically serve this population well. So, I started thinking critically about how we could better serve these populations, particularly by exploring Black males’ ideologies about masculinity and manhood and how those belief systems might inform how Black males process traumatic experiences."

In It for the Long Haul

From that Black youth in Chicago to the Black youths at Franklin, Lewis is helping young Black people process trauma through the lens of their identities. While the study is currently for one year, he hopes to continue the partnership indefinitely.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” he says. “We stress that to our school and community partners and to the students’ parents. And while it’s one school now, our goal is to continue this implementation process at other schools as well.”