Beyond Bullets Mental Wellness
‘He’s never gonna be the same again’
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.
Keep your head down. Focus on your work. Start a summer landscape business with your brother.
Mia has raised her four sons to avoid the ever-present and growing risk of gun violence.
But now after her 16-year-old son James was shot twice in a year and a half, Mia sees her only option as moving away from Kalamazoo.
“This changed my son,” Mia says. “My son is not the same. He’s never gonna be the same again.”
Mia and James are not their real names; pseudonyms are being used to protect their safety. They are sharing their story in an effort to increase awareness of the mental health impact of gun violence.
Like many communities across the country, the past few years have been marked by increased shootings and, two of the past three years, record gun homicides in Kalamazoo.
Kalamazoo city and county commissions have both declared gun violence a public health crisis and each have directed $1 million toward solutions. A massive strategic plan is now being created by community advocates and leaders.
In the meantime, teenagers such as James have to seek out support themselves. And they also have to be cautious that they don’t get swept up by the criminal justice system as a result of implied guilt by association or ZIP Code.
James still uses crutches to support himself after being shot in the leg in December.
Mia is worried more about the wounds he conceals, what this has done to the child she’s raised to do right.
When asked what changed for him, James responds with one word: “Everything.”
The first bullet was a stray.
It was a summer day in 2021. He was 14, outside with family and friends on his grandma’s porch on Florence Street in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood.
There were many kids outside the house at the time. James was holding his baby cousin when the shooting began. As he lifted his arms to hand him off to safety, it revealed a red stain in his shirt.
Mia says the bullet went through the shoulder and remains there between his lung and heart, too close to either for the doctors to remove it.
“It was literally some kids coming through the alley and somebody was driving, and he just was in the midst of it,” Mia says.
According to police reports of the incident, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, James, Mia, and family and friends identified people they thought were involved and requested prosecution.
Subsequently, Mia says, they felt police treated them less like victims of a shooting and more like people involved in gang violence. Mia and James say they were not connected to any mental health or community support systems, and the police reports do not mention any referrals. NowKalamazoo made multiple requests for comment to the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, but did not receive any response prior to publication.
“When he got to the hospital, the first thing police asked him was, ‘We’re not helping you until you tell us what gang you’re in,’” she says.
This response shocked Mia.
“Ever since they were little, I’ve been on them” to keep them out of trouble, Mia says.
The single mother of four boys ages 18, 16, 12 and 9, says she is unapologetic about having high expectations for respect and discipline from her sons. She’s in their business and “on their ass,” she says.
“I’m raising four boys by myself. Nobody’s been locked up. Nobody—” she stops herself abruptly from saying “nobody has been shot,” a point of pride that’s been snatched away from her.
“But I couldn’t control that,” she says, “and I kind of felt bad about that too. Cause I’m like, ‘damn, what could I have done better?’ And it’s nothing I really could have (done) to avoid it.”
James said that when he didn’t retaliate after being shot the first time, that made him a target for ridicule from some of his peers.
The support system outside of his family was minimal, as was the opportunity for mental-health treatment. And the expectations for a high schooler went unchanged despite the trauma that James experienced.
Still, after the first shooting James was on a path to recovery. “He was doing everything he needs to do, had a job, playing basketball,” Mia says.
As the months went by, James went from being an average teenager to a survivor of gun violence.
Last December, James got off the afternoon bus from school, dropped off his bag and said hi to his mother.
Mia was preparing a food catering order when James arrived home from school. He asked her for a burger, and left to meet his girlfriend at a field a block away. It was a typical routine, Mia says.
Teens from school who he scuffled with before were driving around the area, so he told his girlfriend to go to her home and he took off back to his. They caught up to him just outside his house.
“When he went out there he said these kids were riding by and they shot him,” Mia said.
The kid who he thinks shot him the second time was no stranger, James says.
He and the alleged shooter had gotten into fistfights in the past, James said, because the other teen was threatening James’ cousin.
“It was mainly him that was trying to shoot me because I beat him up bad,” James said.
Mia recognizes many don’t survive one gunshot let alone two. She’s grateful to have her son physically, but she says mentally and emotionally “he’s not OK.”
“He was a whole different person, he was mad,” Mia says. “Mad at everybody, mean to everybody. He’s never been mean.”
Not everything has changed for James since the shootings.
He says he has had no thoughts of retaliating, no thoughts of using guns himself.
“I never liked guns,” he says, and views peers who choose guns or gangs as “careless.”
The teen says he sees young men near his age flaunting weapons on social media: “I don’t look at it too much. I ain’t worried about them.”
He says he values the guidance and support that his mother provides, and says his older brother constantly reminds him there’s a bigger prize awaiting him in life than the short-term gain, high-risk opportunities on the street.
But Mia said that James has developed crippling paranoia.
Before the shooting, she says, he was motivated – and not just as a student. In his free time, he went into business with his brother doing yardwork around the neighborhood. She had even gotten them a pickup truck and equipment to support it.
“He was the best. Like, when I say the best kid … he always wanted to be a pastor when he was a kid,” Mia says.
“My son has anger issues now. He has PTSD. He gets aggressive. He’s mad. He’s upset like — he was shot.”
James struggles to articulate his feelings for himself. Sometimes he notices how his behavior has shifted, sometimes he just assures his mom that he’s fine.
He notices the paranoia, too, “especially when I hear loud sounds.” He says the feeling of having to watch his back isn’t as intense since hearing the teen whom he alleges shot him the second time was himself shot and killed.
Yet, what is it going to take for him to feel happy again?
“Probably nothing” he says.
Mia knows that James needs professional help. She benefited from therapy to address abuse she suffered in her past, and she understood it was necessary for her son, too.
But James says he doesn’t confide in his therapist – their experiences, backgrounds, and cultures are too different for the therapist to understand, he says.
He couldn’t count on adults for protection, so he distrusts them now – they may be in cahoots with the police or believe the narrative that somehow it was his fault for getting shot.
Guns have become the leading cause of death for all American children, and Black youths such as James are eight times as likely as other children to die by gunfire, according to a 2022 study by The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
Thirty-three people younger than 25 died by gunfire in Kalamazoo County between 2018 and 2021, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sixteen of the 33 were Black males – almost half – even though Black males are only 6% of the county population.
In 2020 and 2021, the city of Kalamazoo set records for gun deaths outside of suicide, with 13 and 14 deaths respectively. That doesn’t include 74 people injured by shootings in 2020 and 76 in 2021.
As Kalamazoo city and county officials consider how to address gun violence, they may get a boost from the state Legislature and governor, which are championing bills to expand gun purchase background checks, storage requirements, and ways to confiscate legally purchased guns from people deemed a threat to the public or themselves.
However, the need for solutions in Kalamazoo extends beyond access to firearms.
The shooters, victims, and gun dealers are getting younger, police and gun violence prevention workers say. Intervention and support are needed but hard to come by for youths whose brains are still developing, whose daydreams are forced to include contemplating life-or-death situations.
It’s a heavy load for the young people facing the brunt of the gun violence epidemic but have no power of policymaking, no say in what resources are provided or which way the limited support available is directed. Nor do these young victims have a say in their living conditions or neighborhood environments, which are often communities wracked by decades of systemic racism.
For years, community organizations based in the neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence – and often led by people who used to carry guns themselves – have done one-on-one and group outreach to convince young people to disarm.
Hundreds of youth are successfully engaged by these groups each year. Without more funding and other institutional-sized support, however, their success is limited.
“We’ve been at this gun violence thing back when I tried to tell them (police) we had a gun violence problem and they thought we had a gang problem,” says Yafinceio “Big B” Harris, co-founder of the anti-gun violence street outreach and support group Peace During War and a leader in Kalamazoo’s Group Violence Intervention (GVI) program, which gets referrals and some support from local law enforcement.
Harris says his team understands the weight that young victims of gun violence carry and what it does to someone mentally. But GVI team members don’t have the credentials to offer formal mental-health services.
“They think gun violence is a mental health crisis, when you are tired of being oppressed,” Harris says. “Ain’t no on-and-off switch for that – once you cut it on, it may never cut back off.”
Four hundred miles from Kalamazoo, at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital, a pilot program has leveraged hospital social workers to focus the urgency of helping kids cope with trauma as soon as possible.
Their intervention program starts in the emergency room. Kids that come into the hospital for any type of interpersonal violence are offered a spot in the Victim of Violence Program. The requirement is the kids and their families must commit to the program for a year.
“We are really intentional about not just addressing the trauma, but any other psychosocial concerns that may arise within that year,” says Brittney Tubbs, a behavioral health social work supervisor at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Tubbs says her team develops a specific, holistic treatment plan for each patient.
“That can be anything from just graduating high school, or getting back enrolled in high school, or working on communication with family, or just managing those symptoms of trauma,” she said.
In 2021 the program had a 100% completion rate. There were 11 patients, which Tubbs says she realizes sounds low. Tubbs’ team of Black men and women often provide a level of trust and relatability for victims that are also suspicious of a criminal justice and health-care system that has historically been weaponized against them.
“A lot of times we get denied by patients and families, because their idea of a social worker is ‘my child was impacted by violence, and you’re coming to take my child away from me,’“ says Tubbs.
The program is funded by donors and implemented via partnerships with local governments, law enforcement entities, and school districts. They’re working to make the program more accessible as well by eliminating the requirement that the kids have to be admitted to the hospital or seen in the emergency department to qualify.
“Sometimes the patients and families don’t always recognize how much the trauma is impacting them in the moment,” Tubbs says.
‘I didn’t know how to ask for help’
James was eventually connected to Harris and the local Group Violence Intervention.
“I remember when he first got shot, I wasn’t called out,” Harris says. When they finally connected, “he was crying out. He felt like his voice wasn’t being heard.”
Harris says he has an ear to the street, and respect from those who recognize the change he’s trying to bring about. He has a unique understanding and approach to prevention as someone who has been shot — and has been a shooter.
It also helps that he gets access to victims and suspects of gun violence through GVI. But with a lack of dedicated funding and other support, his organization and others like it can only do so much.
In cases like James’, there isn’t always a program or initiative he can direct youth to for continued guidance and support, which puts a lot of the burden back on the victims.
“When I was young, I didn’t know how to ask for help,” Harris says, adding he applauds James for not adopting a street justice mentality.
“I don’t think he wants to let his mom down nor himself. He understands that going that route there’s nothing, there’s nothing at all,” he says.
Still, Mia says she wants to move her sons away from Kalamazoo, hoping a new environment will be the catalyst for her family’s healing.
“I don’t want my son to get grown and take it out on somebody else or, you know, have anger issues,” she says.
Harris believes Kalamazoo has the potential to provide a hub of resources and protection just like St. Louis.
“If we want them to unify with each other, the city has to unify as well, and show them real power coming together and give them all the resources we got on the table for them,” he says. “You know, they cannot be what they can’t see.”
Support local. Donate today to Kalamazoo's only locally owned and independent daily news organization.