‘It’s really heavy work’

Their personal trauma with gun violence equips local intervention workers to fight on the front lines against it. But at what cost to their own mental health? How a shift in the traditional approach to therapy supports a group that’s usually reluctant to do it.

This story is part of the Mental Wellness Project, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative covering mental health issues in southwest Michigan, created by the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. SWMJC is a group of 12 regional organizations dedicated to strengthening local journalism. For more info visit swmichjournalism.com.

Michael Wilder is no stranger to dangerous jobs.

Before his last prison term, 17 years ago, Wilder was a drug dealer and a tool of the trade was carrying a gun. Occupational hazards included getting shot at, and the hypervigilance required to survive.

Now, Wilder is a coordinator of Kalamazoo’s Group Violence Intervention program, an initiative that interjects itself into the cycle of gun violence in order to stop it.

The risk remains the same – perhaps even more so now; he works with victims, shooters, and even the police and criminal justice system in a way that only is successful if he’s on the front line. But, of course, there are costs.

“We’ve been through trauma. We’ve been raised through trauma. But we didn’t know it because it was normal to us,” says Wilder.

Dozens of people in Kalamazoo work with Wilder or in other organizations whose work extends beyond a typical 9-5 in a multi-year epidemic of local gun violence, mitigating what both Kalamazoo city and county governments have called a public health crisis.

He’s not alone – but the work brings with it a series of mental health stressors, triggers of both new and past experiences. And the risk of burning out the people doing this work goes far beyond the personal sacrifices they make; who will do the job if they no longer can?

Mike Wilder walks down the street next to a line of young people marching. His back is facing the camera and he wears a yellow tee-shirt with the words "No gun smoke, just peace smoke."
Mike Wilder guides a youth-led community march on June 10, 2023.

Floyd Matthews, director of recovery and supportive services at Urban Alliance, calls these individuals “Wounded Helpers.” People who are motivated by personal traumas to do this work. A report by the Giffords Center for Violence Intervention on community violence intervention workers found that 93% of respondents had directly witnessed gun violence, 56% had been victims of gun violence, and 52% indicated that a family member had been a victim of gun violence.

“It’s really heavy work, and it impacts how I show up for my kids sometimes because I take the work home too,” says Tami Rey, who is both a policy advocate as the vice chairperson of the Kalamazoo County Commission and a resident of the city of Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood, where gun violence and its root causes of racism and disinvestment persist. “The way I’m set up, I can’t turn the work off.”

Rey has been on the front lines of community engagement, awareness, prevention efforts, and policy surrounding gun violence in Kalamazoo. Along with being the co-chair of ISAAC’s Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, Rey knows everybody, and for many people, she has become the go-to person to call after experiencing an episode of gun violence. Often, Rey can be found pulling up to the scene directly after a shooting, or receiving calls from those in need of support.

Tami Rey stands and talks to two people in an outdoor space. The other two people are holding a basketball and drinks in styrofoam cups.
Tami Rey speaks with an attendee before a community march in the Edison neighborhood organized by Urban Alliance.

Like the team at GVI, this work is more than a job to Rey, who lost her brother to gun violence. Rey is well known in the community as someone who is willing to help, but being in that role, Rey says, can trigger emotions related to her own loss.

Calvin Ruff, a licensed social worker and therapist for the Synergy Health Center, says this retraumatization is “the reactivation of the trauma response,” and can be triggered by virtually anything. The results are depression, anxiety, and substance abuse behaviors, says Ruff. Plus the physical toll that stress of any kind can have on a person. Though it is impossible for the GVI team to avoid potential triggers while doing this work, it is possible to reduce the likelihood of retraumatization and the severity of the response.

For GVI Team Member Michael Monroe, sometimes retraumatization feels like old wounds made fresh again.

Monroe is the youngest of seven siblings, but he is the only one left. Recently, Monroe came to realize that he never truly grieved for his siblings. It can feel healing to use his own story to help others, he says, but when someone has a similar story to himself, the trauma feels fresh again.

“Sometimes I think I hurt for the next person more than I hurt for myself,” Monroe says.

Mike Monroe stands listening to people speak. He wears a blue polo shirt and a blue checkered bucket hat.
Mike Monroe watches and listens to the speeches given after the youth-led community march on June 10, 2023.

Matthews compares the team’s past experience to a fire inside them that motivates them in their work: “but fire can be used to warm and sooth, and it can be used to burn,” says Matthews, “it depends on how you use it.”

Although 99% of community violence intervention workers reported experiencing job satisfaction, 53% agreed that they were negatively affected by the trauma of those they help, according to the Gifford Center for Violence Intervention. Its report also validates embedding self-care practices into community violence intervention organizations as an effective way to reduce negative effects on mental health. This includes providing culturally competent mental health services, and educating staff on trauma and mental health.

For almost a year and a half now, Matthews has been teaching healthy coping mechanisms to the team in the form of deep breathing, introspection, and seeking emotional support. During staff meetings, they also participate in biweekly wellness checks to unpack how team members felt while out in the field. Other violence intervention organizations, such as Boston Uncornered, have hired staff members with a similar role to Matthews, to support the well-being of the intervention staff. Herein lies the difference, says Matthews, between the fire helping or hindering the GVI team.

Having a similar past with those you are trying to help makes it easier to build rapport and become a positive role model for others.

However, heavy personal identification with mentees leads to strong emotional attachments. These close connections increase the force of the blow when someone falls between the cracks.

At the beginning of 2023, one of GVI’s mentees committed suicide. The team attended a grief counseling session, led by Matthews, to process their emotions.

“I immediately blamed myself,” says Wilder.

Mike Wilder stands with an arm outstretched in front of him in a sign of prayer. He is surrounded by other people, some with their heads bowed and others with an arm outstretched.
Mike Wilder reaches out his hand in an extension of prayer toward a young person who shared their story of experiencing gun violence at a stop on the march.

Wilder didn’t realize how heavy emotional involvement in his job was affecting his well being until January 19, 2022, when he survived a massive heart attack which required a six-hour quadruple bypass surgery. Now, with titanium in his chest and screws and bolts in his hips, Wilder realizes that the mental and emotional stress had taken a toll on his health.

“Before the heart attack I didn’t know, but now I do know,” says Wilder, “things that I thought didn’t bother me were actually bothering me. I had to accept that this job presents a high level of emotional stress.”

For Wilder, ample family time is the best way to balance out his work stress. For Monroe, regular therapy, talking to his support system, and taking time alone to decompress are the self-care strategies that work best for him. For Rey, the answer is therapy. She’s also thinking about taking a momentary step back from the work for part of the year by cutting down on some of the boards she currently sits on.

Tami Rey smiles as she climbs onto a double-high bicycle, using a bench as a step stool. A man stands next to the bicycle with hands out as if ready to catch her if she falls off.
Tami Rey hops aboard a double-high bicycle brought by an attendee of the community gun violence rally in the Edison neighborhood.

Some team members come to visit Matthews three to four times a week. Monroe visits him often at the end of the workday. Some are still reluctant to ask for help or talk about their emotions.

This stigma around mental health is something Matthews sees a lot with men, particularly men of color. When they hear “mental health,” often what they hear is “they think I’m crazy,” he says.

“You are created with a plethora of emotions … but then culturally, men are told not to use them,” says Matthews. “So now we have learned to suppress a natural response to things that could heal us, and we don’t realize we are inflicting ourselves with pain.”

Since throwing the term “mental health” around can put a prompt end to the conversation, Matthews says the simple solution is not to use it.  Instead, he invites people to talk to him, without labels or expectations; understanding and overcoming mental health barriers in an example of culturally competent care.

“If we remove the uniform and remove the titles, we can have a better dialogue,” Matthews says.

Matthews says this tactic allows him to build trust with his clients and have greater success in referring people to other mental health resources.

Wilder has also learned a lot since his heart attack. Previously, Wilder had gotten into the habit of masking most of his negative emotions. Now, he is able to recognize when he is in a situation that could negatively impact his well-being.

“Since the heart attack, if something highly emotional enters my ears I pump my brakes and I assess, ‘is this too heavy for me right now?’” Wilder says.

Mike Monroe in a blue hat and shirt stands facing a man in orange. They're talking.
Mike Monroe (right) tells his life story to Dan Wood during a gun violence rally in the Edison neighborhood on June 10, 2023.

If he decides the situation could be too much for him, he will delegate it to someone else on his team. Wilder describes this as one of the biggest assets of doing this work in a dedicated team.

“One thing that I can’t handle, he can handle; something that he can’t handle, I can handle,” says Wilder. “There is strength amongst us.”

Wilder says it is the team itself that helps the most with his mental well-being. His team resembles a family more than a group of work colleagues, Wilder says, which helps them minimize the load on their mental health, and maximize the healing benefits of their work.

The work is healing when they help someone end up in a better situation, says Wilder and Monroe; in an apartment with a job, rather than locked behind bars or dead.

“I heal and I hurt,” says Monroe, “but I’m healing more than I used to hurt.”

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