Crime is a significant issue for people in many communities, including people living in poverty. Usually, we view criminal behavior through a legal lens, and use that mindset to craft solutions. But what if we applied a medical science lens to the violence and trauma experienced by people in our communities?
Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting a Shriver Justice Dinner with Dr. Kimberly Joseph, MD, and Dr. Kamana Mbekeani, MD. We focused on how the medical profession can inform criminal justice and public safety policy. Guests included the Shriver Center’s Healthcare Justice team as well as trauma surgeons and emergency room physicians in Chicago, including Dr. Selwyn Rogers, the founding Director of the University of Chicago's Trauma Center.
The criminal justice system addresses crime through punitive measures like mandatory minimums for violent offenses. But the factors that feed into Chicago’s violence and the cycle of trauma can also be seen through a medical science lens. Perhaps violence can be “treated” the same way that we treat diseases like breast cancer or diabetes—as a public health issue.
For example, a patient diagnosed with strep throat is referred to a local pharmacy for the prescribed medication. Yet when the prescribed treatment for trauma-informed care is continuous and adequate mental health services, many physicians across the city have difficulty referring their patients to appropriate care. The physicians at the Justice Dinner spoke extensively about the challenges they face when referring patients impacted by trauma to mental health services. Often, those patients live in neighborhoods that are disinvested Human Service Deserts that lack community mental health facilities, making it difficult for these patients to get treatment.
Some patients receive their first mental health screening in the emergency room. Even worse, some do not receive treatment until they are in jail. In fact, Cook County Jail has been called the city’s largest mental health facility. Trauma-informed care is not preventive if first administered in these settings.
Preventative, trauma-informed care requires that individuals receive mental health screening as children, long before they have become victims and alleged offenders. A child’s social and emotional well-being should be as thoroughly reviewed and documented during mandatory physical exams as the child’s heart rate and breathing. Justice Dinner guests agreed: medical science supports this principle, and so should our state laws and budget. Any public health model used to treat violence and trauma would have to be accompanied with adequate funding towards tools for screening, treating providers, and prevention.
Last month’s Justice Dinner provided a valuable opportunity for advocates at the Shriver Center to expand our partnership with healthcare professionals and apply their valuable lens towards policies that build healthy and safe communities.