After a young Oakland mother was shot in front of her kids, one of her first visitors was Youth ALIVE! intervention specialist Rafael Vasquez. Soon after, Youth Alive!’s Clinical Director and Counselor, Nicky MacCallum, diagnosed her with PTSD. This young mother’s story and an investigation into the epidemic of traumatic stress in America’s violent inner cities are featured in “Black America’s Invisible Crisis” in the October 2014 issue of Essence magazine.
Black America’s Invisible Crisis
Essence, October 2014
by Lois Beckett
When Aireana was lying in Oakland’s Highland Hospital last fall with her jaw wired shut, one of her visitors was Rafael Vasquez, an intervention specialist with Youth Alive!, the nonprofit group that founded the nation’s first hospital-based violence intervention program in 1994. Tall and solidly built, Vasquez sometimes has to reassure patients he’s not an undercover cop. His goal is to ensure that victims of violence stay safe after they leave the hospital and that they never come back under similar circumstances.
Over the winter, Youth Alive!’s licensed marriage and family therapist, Nicky MacCallum, visited Aireana at home to conduct therapy with her daughter. For people who have grown up in violent neighborhoods, the traditional 50-minute therapy session is not always right for them. “Many times young people would walk out not having connected with the therapists, not feeling they could relate to them,” Vasquez says. “They were overwhelmed by the whole experience.” MacCallum has held sessions in coffee shops and parking lots and even on basketball courts while clients shot hoops. By bringing therapy out of the clinic and into the community, Youth Alive! has seen an increase in the number of patients engaged in active therapy: from about 5 percent of its clients to 35 percent.
MacCallum taught Aireana’s 6-year-old how to calm herself down with deep belly breaths. She talked to the girl about trauma in age-appropriate ways, asking if she ever felt like a turtle, hiding in her shell, or a prickly porcupine. Sometimes MacCallum and Aireana’s daughter would sit on the living room floor and draw together as a way to express emotions difficult to put into words. Aireana started by sitting off to one side and watching the sessions. When the therapist told her, “Adults can draw too,” she then picked up a marker herself. This led to Aireana finally sitting down with MacCallum for a session of her own. They started by talking through a list of trauma symptoms: sleep problems, anxiety, fear of going outside. “I’ve got that,” Aireana remembers saying. “That too.”
MacCallum diagnosed Aireana with PTSD. “Nicky helped me,” Aireana says. “She was the first person I actually talked to who believed it was real, that my feelings were real.” MacCallum and other therapists say PTSD is the best diagnosis they can give in these instances—but that it’s not a perfect fit. For clients who live in violent neighborhoods, the trauma that they’re dealing with isn’t really “post.” “People in our community are constantly retraumatized,” MacCallum says.