In 2014, 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott was sitting on her porch in Baltimore when a stray bullet struck and killed her while she was playing. As police and EMTs swirled around the grieving and traumatized family, another first responder was called in: Pastor Andre Humphrey.
Humphrey has run the Baltimore Trauma Response Team (BTRT), a non-profit organization that works to bring comfort and mental health help to those who have been traumatized by shootings and other violence in Baltimore, since 2009.
Humphrey recalled that McKenzie’s family —- already in shock -— was initially suspicious of his team.
“When I explained to them my position and why I was there, they were more receptive,” Humphrey told ABC News.
For several days after McKenzie’s death, the team remained present, taking eight hour shifts to stand vigil. When the family requested it, BTRT even sat and prayed with the family.
Soon news of their services spread through the neighborhood.
“[Members of the response team] were in the neighborhood and trying to get them to understand how important it was to throw their support around McKenzie’s mother,” said Humphrey. “They wanted to know what services would be there in case something happened to their family.”
The team’s visits are not necessarily religious in nature. The team is made up of clinicians and religious professionals and started at Johns Hopkins Medical Center before being taken by over by Humphrey. On the team, a clinical social worker provides counseling and links to community mental health resources.
“When I go on the scene, I let the people tell me what they need or communicate to me,” Humphrey said. “It’s called the ministry of presence ... to let them know that our team cares.”
The team doesn’t stop after the first meeting. They schedule follow-up appointments for the families and help with getting there. Since transportation can be an issue, the team will provide bus tokens or offer to drive people to their initial appointment to ensure they receive the care they need.
“People get discouraged when you keep sending them to places and no one's helping them,” Humphrey explained. “That depresses them even more.”
The organization has been at the center of a city that has been wracked by violence and unrest in recent years. In 2015 Baltimore had 344 homicides, while New York City had 352 despite having 13 times the population.
That constant level of violence can damage more than just physical health; it can also affect mental health for those in the community, even if they are not directly affected by violence. A 2010 study found that being a victim of violence, witnessing violence or even just hearing about it increased the likelihood of developing depression or PTSD among young adults. The symptoms can be especially prevalent in African-American communities.
African-Americans are “10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
Widespread viewing of violent footage on social media such as the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers can add to the traumatic experiences of African-Americans, according to Anita Thomas, professor and the Dean of the College of Applied Behavioral Science at the University of Indianapolis.
“Witnessing and experiencing the event can cause the same amount of pain as having experienced it themselves,” said Thomas. “It’s really the unexpected and uncontrolled aspects that are related to trauma. People [are] reporting lethargy, inability to concentrate, feeling sad, and anxiety symptoms ... more generalized fearfulness.”
She said appropriate therapy can help decrease the damaging effects of trauma and stress and improve the mental health of African-Americans. “There should be acknowledgement that it was painful.”
Children and adolescents can be especially at risk. Adolescents who loses loved ones to homicide are twice as likely to experience depression, PTSD and substance abuse or dependence as their peers, according to a study performed by the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at Medical University of South Carolina
“[For] children and adolescents that are exposed to violence at alarming rates, there is a relationship between witnessing violence and mental health concerns,” said Robin Gurwich, a Child Psychologist at Duke University Medical Center. “It’s an issue that we have to do a better job of addressing.” When Baltimore faced unrest after the death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody, BTRT held town hall meetings with on-site counselors who provided residents who felt angry or fearful with emotional support. They also assessed whether those residents needed further mental health help.
“People were terrified and didn’t know what to do,” said Humphrey.
“People asked, ‘Is there any hope?’, ‘Will this change?’" he said. They wanted to know, “'If it happens to me, what do I do?'”
Humphrey said his team is focused on helping lift some of that psychological distress.