Can therapy help break the cycle of gun violence?

One practitioner is trying to heal the invisible wounds caused by gunfire.

November 11, 2021, 6:06 AM

This report is a part of "Rethinking Gun Violence," an ABC News series examining the level of gun violence in the U.S. -- and what can be done about it.

Philadelphia's murder rate is on pace to set a record for the second year in a row.

The city is a fraction of the size of New York, yet it has 18% more homicides.

All of that violence takes a toll not only on victims but their families and communities as well, experts say, particularly young people and particularly in communities of color.

Research indicates that a number of therapies are effective at healing communities, according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, even though there are barriers such as access and stigma.

A lot of my kids were reaching out because they were losing three or four friends a week

While there are free therapy services in Philadelphia and elsewhere designed to address the impact of gun violence on youth and communities, one licensed therapist born and raised in West Philadelphia has started using her trade to try to help heal the psychological wounds that gunfire continues to inflict on the youth of her hometown and break the cycle of violence.

Akea Williams started a program called "Therapy over Revenge" in July 2021, hoping to help stop the cycle of violence by offering free therapy sessions to kids who have experienced or seen gun violence in Philadelphia or to people with a family member who has been shot within the past few months.

"A lot of my kids were reaching out because they were losing three or four friends a week. They can't even breathe and get over the grief of one before another one is dying," Williams said, referring to the youth she has been counseling.

Akea Williams is shown during an interview with ABC News.
Akea Williams is shown during an interview with ABC News.

As of Monday, there had been 1,922 people shot in the city of Philadelphia this year, with 189 of those victims under the age of 18, according to the Philadelphia controller's office. There had also been 473 homicides by gun violence so far this year, with 84% of those killed being Black and 9% being Hispanic. Twenty-nine of the total number of people killed by gun violence this year were minors.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson is chair of the City Council's Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention, which he helped create in 2017 to fight gun violence.

Johnson supports the work Williams is doing and believes it can succeed citywide if more resources are provided to support free therapy. But he believes more is needed.

In this Oct. 11, 2018, file photo, City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson speaks during a news conference at City Hall in Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke/AP, FILE

"Therapeutic services to support our young people is something that should definitely be supported and noted, but also we have to go to scale and build capacity around making sure that we have significant trauma care support services for our young people because we know hurt people hurt people...especially when you live in areas of poverty in a neighborhood, if you see gun violence on a day-to-day basis," Johnson said.

Therapy is 'imperative'

Williams says she began giving free therapy sessions to kids in the West Philadelphia area, which is plagued by gun violence, after several young people in the community reached out to her this summer. Experiencing classmates die consistently led to daily calls from several groups of kids.

They're not killers. They're not vicious people. They're human beings.

Within three months of Williams offering free therapy sessions, she said she has seen or spoken by phone with 372 children or family members for treatment.

"Therapy might not be the complete answer, but it's imperative," she said.

Williams' goal with "Therapy over Revenge" is to help kids and family members recover from their trauma while attempting to stop future gun violence. She does this by creating unique coping skills for each client, so they can handle their emotions and grief properly.

"They're not killers. They're not vicious people. They're human beings. That's it. They just have so many pent up emotions. They don't know what to deal with, so my job as a therapist is to show them how to appropriately be able to manage their emotions," she said. "Once you teach someone how to manage their emotions and to make better decisions, they make better decisions. So, if they're making better decisions, they might make an even better decision not to use a gun to kill somebody," she added.

Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia believe gun violence not only affects victims and their families but kids under 17 who live in the area where it occurs.

After cross-referencing the Philadelphia Police Department's repository of shootings, these researchers found that children who live four to five blocks away from a location where a shooting occurred are 134% more likely to go to the emergency room for a mental health issue than those who live more than five blocks away.

The study also reveals that symptoms of mental health distress in the children are found within days, showing "exposure to neighborhood gun violence is associated with an increase in children's acute mental health symptoms."

'Living just to die'

Williams, who was licensed in August 2021 but worked for years with domestic violence therapists while she was in school, said she hears daily of how kids are scared of going to school and feel like they are "living just to die."

This pushes her to continue her work, with the "ultimate goal" of seeing their lives change, she said, adding that she wants her clients to be able to live peacefully and play outside while others in the community can also feel safe again.

Arron Muller, a therapist at Life Matters Psychological in New York and a behavioral health consultant for Kings Against Violence Initiative, a youth-serving organization in Brooklyn, has been speaking to young Black boys who experience gun violence.

The mission for the group, he said, is to address the "endemic public health issue of gun violence."

"Due to the exposure to secondary trauma, vicarious trauma that students go through, I think that therapy is very, very, very helpful because they may have experienced a loss because of the violence, they may have, you know, just hearing gunshots going off, what does that do to a child on a daily basis?" Muller said.

In this July 19, 2021, file photo, police tape blocks a street where a person was recently shot in a drug related incident in Philadelphia.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images, FILE

Williams believes her work is slowly but surely helping the community she has lived in all her life.

She said she has convinced kids not to go to school to shoot at someone in retaliation for prior incidents. And she said she speaks to parents daily.

Therapy not enough

Gun violence is a symptom, it's not the illness itself.

Dr. Jonathan Metzl, a sociology and psychiatry professor and gun violence expert at Vanderbilt University, said he believes that while Williams is doing "important work," treating people individually is a losing battle if the root causes of gun violence are not addressed.

"So, in the sense, people should get therapy for anxiety but ultimately the problem isn't coming because there's something wrong with their brain. The problem is coming because there are too many guns and not enough policy, not enough good policy, so ultimately you have to fix society in addition to treating their individual symptoms," he said.

"Gun violence is a symptom, it's not the illness itself. Gun violence is a symptom of a bigger social problem and that's the issue. We have to invest more in communities and community safety," he added.

Williams believes that one of the factors fueling gun violence is social media.

"Social media plays a major role in violence because it's a show," Williams said. "Social media has changed this generation. They are committing crimes but they're recording themselves committing crimes and then posting on social media, letting everybody know that they committed these crimes. So, I think that if social media was taken away, there wouldn't be so much to prove."

That said, Williams is using social media herself and started the #AkeasHeartChallenge.

In the challenge, she is encouraging followers to post a recording of themselves addressing a teen in Philadelphia who is scared to open up about their trauma. The point is to destigmatize therapy to help curb gun violence.

"My hope and my prayer for the city is that we can get this under control and we will be back in that situation where Philadelphia just becomes the city of brotherly love again," Williams said.

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