NASW-Illinois Chapter President Latesha Newson, MSW, LCSW
Greetings NASW-IL Social Work Community,
As we come to the close of the first month of a new year, we find ourselves grappling with the severity of two public health crisis which are gun violence and mental health. We must recognize that the issue of gun violence is a national public health crisis. The horrendous tragedies that have taken place in the Joliet and Tinley Park communities have been devastating, as well as the recent loss of two youth to gun violence outside of their high school in the city of Chicago this past month. We are in a national crisis as it relates to gun violence and mental health in our country.
According to recent statistics, “[O]ver 1,300 people died by guns in Illinois each year and of those, over half were homicides. The rate of Illinois deaths by firearm is higher than the national rate. Chicago lost 791 victims to firearm-related homicide in 2021, the highest number of victims in 25 years. In addition, research indicates the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to social and economic stressors associated with increased gun procurement and heightened violence.” (LINK)
I want to be distinctly clear that having a mental illness does not equate to gun violence or one being violent. That poorly constructed narrative which our organization denounces “creates a false narrative and encourages stigmatization and discrimination against people living with a mental illness who are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.” (LINK)
As a chapter and organization, we continue to stand on the front lines of this fight advocating for common-sense gun laws in efforts to create safer communities. As the NASW-Illinois Chapter, we continue to demonstrate our commitment to making an impact through our advocacy efforts and support for the Protect Illinois Communities Act which was signed into law by Governor JB Pritzker on January 10, 2023. We are grateful to our legislators that understand the importance and have taken the action of ensuring that our communities, schools, and public squares are safe. Even with this significant legislation, the state of our society shows us that there is more work to be done. Our country needs to embrace a more solution-focused approach as it relates to community violence. Calling for stricter gun laws does not solve the problem. In many instances, it functions to add to another social problem which is the issue of mass incarceration. As social workers, it is of the utmost importance that we inform our lawmakers of the systemic issues that perpetuate gun violence in our communities. As social workers, we understand the complexities and the layers associated with gun violence. We need to inform from the perspective of a systems theory approach which encompasses the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of practice.
“[Policies and strategies that address gun violence can be developed at individual, community, and systems levels:
Individual: Those living in the communities with high rates of violence should have access to evidence-based, trauma-informed treatment to address exposure to gun violence, police violence, and structural inequities that make individuals feel unsafe.
Community: Addressing gun violence in communities with high rates of violent crimes may help reduce the need to carry guns for protection. Researchers point to investment in community resources, including employment, evidence-based community violence interventions, and services and supports for teenagers and young adults to address impacts of violence.
Systems: A reframing of gun violence as public health crisis is needed and should be treated as other public health crises, with urgency. This includes funding for research on gun violence prevention, employing evidence-based prevention strategies, and offering employment opportunities and access to affordable housing.]”
As a constituent of Illinois, it is refreshing to have legislators that willingly listen and understand the impact of gun violence, community violence, and its impact on mental health. As a chapter, we continue to lead with intention in doing our part to inform our local and state legislators of best practice approaches to addressing the complexities of trauma and mental health.
· Treatment Not Trauma
For the past 2½ years, our chapter has been a member of the Collaborative for Community Wellness, and our NASW-IL Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility, and Belonging (DEIAB) Committee has been instrumental in supporting and advocating for the passage and implementation of Treatment Not Trauma for the City of Chicago. We are happy to inform you that I have been appointed by Mayor Johnson’s administration to the city’s working group for the implementation for this initiative. This working group began meeting in December 2023 and will be responsible for producing a report of recommendations by June of this year that creates a plan to expand mental healthcare in Chicago and a non-police crisis response to mental healthcare needs. The first public city-wide meeting took place this past Tuesday, January 30, 2024, at Arturo Velasquez Westside Technical Institute. This citywide community event gave community members the opportunity to hear about the Treatment Not Trauma working group and give public input. We would like to extend the opportunity for our chapter membership to provide insight by completing this survey which will be utilized to inform this process as well. http://bit.ly/tnt-survey
The community forum went quite well. Many in the community came out to provide their input and to share their lived experiences with mental health and the current lack of available resources for care. They overwhelmingly agree with the goals of Treatment Not Trauma and provided valuable insight regarding the additional needs and services. The community input is essential to this process. I am grateful to Mayor Brandon Johnson and his administration for this appointment to the working group and excited to build a blueprint for mental health infrastructure in the city of Chicago that is inclusive and offering comprehensive services for all.
· Lt. Stratton Healing Task Force Announced at GSU
I am also elated of the announcement of the Illinois Healing Task Force by Lieutenant Governor Julianna Stratton. This task force was recently announced on Tuesday, January 30, 2024, at my very own alma mater Governors State University. It was remarkable and refreshing to hear our lieutenant governor's vision for building “trauma-informed and healing-centered care.” This vision is a comprehensive approach to addressing many of the social and economic inequities which oppress many in our Illinois communities. This task force is in direct response to the passage of Senate Bill 646 . We thank Lieutenant Governor Stratton, Senator Kimberly Lightford, and Representative Justin Slaughter for their unwavering commitment to the people of Illinois and creating equitable modalities of care to help heal and alleviate the social issues many in our communities face. This is a pivotal step forward in healing and mending our communities. In quoting our Lieutenant Governor Stratton, “we have previously heard that hurt people hurt others, but we are moving to healed people, heal others.”
In our chapter news:
· Chapter elections are under way. We are looking for the next social work leaders to continue this great work of leading us into societal and equitable change. In serving on the NASW-Illinois Chapter Board of Directors since 2019, it has been an enriching experience that has enhanced my leadership skills and career, increased my professional relationships across the profession, and helped me to leave a last legacy of societal change. Learn more about the open positions and how to apply by clicking here.
· In February 2023, the NASW-Illinois Chapter Board of Directors met with Dana A. Weiner, PhD, as she presented her research and vision as director of the Illinois Children's Behavioral Health Transformation and Initiative: Blueprint for Transformation. Our board was able to provide insight from a social work perspective to help inform this vision, and we are happy to see this vision and blueprint become reality children and families in our state. Dr. Weiner’s blueprint will not only transform behavioral health and mental health services for our children in Illinois by removing barriers and providing access, but it will also provide comprehensive and equitable care for all children and youth. This past Monday, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, along with Illinois DCFS and the Department of Human Services, announced the creation of BEACON (Behavioral Health Care and Ongoing Navigation): “A service access portal for Illinois youth, a new state of the art online portal that will make it easier for Illinois families to access behavioral and mental health resources for children. The centralized point of access will improve the experience of families engaged with Illinois DCFS, Department of Human Services, Department of Healthcare and Family Services, Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Public Health, and the Illinois State Board of Education.”
With such significant and thoughtful change occurring around our state, I am finding hope that we are moving towards a more responsible and responsive way of caring for those who are most vulnerable and in need. I am giving myself space to feel the despair associated with the lives lost and also allowing myself the space to hope. It is through this hope that I am able to envision and build towards a better tomorrow. I find myself meditating on the words of the late, great Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope." With this hope, may we build towards a more just and equitable future!
Latesha Newson, MSW, LCSW (she/her), serves as university lecturer and BSW field coordinator at Governors State University in the Department of Social Work. She is a strong advocate for social justice and works to influence policies that create equitable and transformative change in our society. She has served on the NASW-Illinois Chapter Board of Directors since 2019, previously as Calumet District Chair, chair of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Committee (DEIAC), and as member of the national NASW Delegate Assembly. In 2020 she served as co-chair of the NASW-Illinois Chapter Task Force on Racial Justice where the chapter’s final recommendations on police reform were reflected in the Criminal Justice Omnibus bill. Latesha believes that it is our social responsibility to create and effect change through advocacy, policy, and the advancement of social work.