In many of our communities in Allegheny County, there is a largely unrecognized contagious disease killing our children. Our communities are being exposed every day to this terrible disease, and we don’t have enough resources, advocacy or treatment to help prevent its spread.
It is not opioid addiction; it is gun violence. Violence works the same way that many of our most contagious diseases work: You can “catch it.” This doesn’t mean that you inhale it or swallow it, but we do know that your chance of being a victim or perpetrator of violence increases greatly the more you are exposed to it.
Like other epidemics, some populations are disproportionately impacted. White males are more likely to die from opioid overdoses or motor-vehicle accidents, and African-American males are more likely to die from gun violence.
Understanding that violence is a disease should compel us all to take a deeper look at how we can prevent and treat it in Allegheny County. We also must recognize that some communities are at a higher risk than others through no fault of their own.
Using a public-health perspective, we can monitor the spread of violence just as we monitor the spread of other diseases. We can target our efforts to areas with high need and we can learn more about what predicts the disease in order to prevent it. That is exactly what we are doing.
In 2016, the Heinz Endowments funded the Health Department’s start of an Office of Violence Prevention. Building on that initiative, grants have been awarded to the University of Pittsburgh to support street outreach teams and to Focus Pittsburgh to form a trauma-response team. Street Outreach teams focus on prevention of emerging conflicts through outreach to youth and the interruption of violence. They are out on the street, meeting with community members, learning about connections and working with local leaders.
To support communities in the aftermath of violence, given the loss and the fear, Focus Pittsburgh, working with volunteers, has developed a Trauma Response Team. Team members arrive after a violent episode to promote psychological and emotional wellness for residents affected by violence. This has been shown to help prevent future violence.
These initiatives are a start, but more is needed to combat the epidemic, and we must work together, understanding that this will be a long-term endeavor.
Currently, there is an outpouring of effort focused on opioid overdoses. This is critical to save lives, but we must not forget that gun violence also is taking its toll, and there are negligible resources to address it.
We cannot sit idly by and watch as the disease of violence takes one young life after another. To combat violence will take the whole village. It will take renewed and ongoing efforts aimed at addressing the root causes, including poverty, institutional racism, guns and drugs.
Everyone will need to participate, including those working in public health, human services, law enforcement, criminal justice, faith communities, nonprofits, foundations, residents and schools. As the disease of violence continues to spread through our communities, we must fight back.