Intervention Study Combats Stress in African-American Youth
Violence in the streets. Racism. School closures. Uncertainty about the future. You wouldn’t know it from the way the students enter the classroom, laughing and jostling each other, but these burdens weigh heavily on their hearts. “There are many stressful things they have to cope with on a daily basis,” says W. LaVome Robinson, professor of clinical psychology in the College of Science and Health. “It’s easy to be devastated by that reality, but we’re here to figure out how not to be.”
These students are part of a cohort of hundreds of African-American freshmen from four public high schools on the West and South Sides of Chicago who are participating in a unique violence prevention study and intervention. Robinson is principal investigator for the National Institutes of Health–funded five-year research study. Her colleague Leonard Jason, professor and director of the Center for Community Research, and Sharon F. Lambert, associate professor of clinical/community psychology at George Washington University, serve as co-investigators.
The program equips students with strategies and techniques designed to reduce stress and defuse potentially violent situations. In each of the 15 weekly meetings, a trained facilitator leads activities and group discussions. “Even though the focus is on cognitive behavior, it’s not supposed to feel like a class,” Robinson emphasizes. “We make it fun and exciting.” Three years in, this approach is already making an impact. Robinson says students are constantly asking to participate, but she has to turn them away to preserve the study’s random sampling; half of the students are randomized into the program, while the other half attend a school-based health center program.
Follow-up skills assessments are conducted six and 12 months after the sessions conclude. This past summer, the investigators and CSH students began preliminary data analysis. “This is an incredible opportunity for DePaul undergraduates,” Jason says. “We have students serving as assistants to the facilitators and working with the data sets.” Several undergraduates have already shifted their research focus due to their involvement with the project. “Not many research teams are allowed to collaborate with Chicago Public Schools,” Robinson notes. “We’re providing uniquely valuable training for undergraduates.”
Working in the third-largest school district in the country gives students an inside look at some of the most serious issues affecting urban education. “If you think about everything happening in the news today, it’s clear that violence intervention and stress-reduction programs are so important,” Jason says, alluding to recent police shootings, gang violence and the closure of many public schools. In fact, Robinson was surprised by the increased stress levels of the 2015-16 cohort compared with the previous group. “They have concerns about being attacked,” she explains. “They want to know how to handle themselves, how to avoid deadly situations.”
These anxieties underscore the urgency of the project, which Jason hopes will eventually expand to all levels of the school system. “This is only the first step,” he asserts. “We want to help students successfully navigate their social environments whether they’re in kindergarten, senior year or any grade in between.”