In My Voice: I Experienced Gun Violence Firsthand and Struggled with My Mental Health. Now I’m Working to Help Others Address Both.
“Any time a black man is willing to talk openly about his mental health with his community, it plants a seed for change.”
Throughout Mental Health Month, we will be sharing Q&As with individuals who have experience with different aspects of mental health and gun violence. Today, we share a Q&A with James Braxton. James is a member of the planning/leadership committee of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence’s Virginia Action Network. He is also the Strategic Engagement Director for RISE (Reinvest In Supportive Environments) for Youth — a statewide, nonpartisan initiative that advocates for the closure of juvenile prisons and reinvestment of resources back into impacted communities. He operates a resource center in Richmond for youth aging out of foster care called Positive Paths. He is also founder of “The Co-Parenting Empowerment Project” and a published author.
1. What do you do with the Virginia Action Network (VAN)? Why did you join?
I assist with the strategic planning and community-led initiatives such as the State of the Black Male. I network with a purpose and strengthen the communication between community and systems. I assist in helping grassroots service providers build their capacity to serve impacted communities. I joined VAN because I believe in the people around the table. I believe in the vision and what the outcomes could be for families once we reach the highest level of execution and commitment.
2. In general, how do you think gun violence affects the mental health of these families and impacted communities?
The impact of gun violence causes youth and families from impacted communities to constantly live in fear. Fear of what could happen each day to either themselves or a loved one. So many people from impacted communities struggle with anxiety and depression, but because of the barriers and systems in place, they are not able to get help. They just conform to that way of life. This creates a vicious cycle; families teach each other that trauma is their reality.
3. Were you ever exposed to the trauma of gun violence? Did you know others who were? If so, how did gun violence impact your life?
Yes, I have been exposed to gun violence. I have contributed to gun violence. I have lost family, friends, and mentees to gun violence.
I recall being with one of my friends one time when another guy tried to rob him with a gun. They fought for the gun, and my friend gained control of the gun and killed him in self-defense. Because of the lifestyle we were already living, every day we lived in fight-or-flight mode. But this was more intense. This was truly traumatic.
Still, over time, when you have heard so many gunshots and experienced so many people getting shot, you become numb to it. It just becomes a way of life. Growing up, I was in various situations where gunplay was the preferred method of problem solving. The mental health impact didn’t just come from using the gun and experiencing the impact; the simple act of carrying it every day — not knowing if I would use it or what would happen if the police caught me with it — took a toll.
4. Have you personally struggled with your mental health?
Yes. I first realized something was going on with my mental health around 2009. I was visiting my mom in Hampton, Virginia, struggling to find stability in my life, and I began to feel this overwhelming sense of hopelessness. I felt like giving up, and I felt like dying. Physically, I felt drained of all energy. I felt somewhat weak — like how your body feels when you catch a cold. That’s exactly how my mind felt.
I knew something wasn’t right, and I didn’t feel in control. At that moment, I caught myself actively searching for a way to end my life, but I was able to walk away, and instead, I went to her for help.
5. How do you think your experience with mental illness allows you to help others?
I can relate to most of their experiences. My particular interest in sharing my experience is to lead by example so that young black men specifically will become encouraged to recognize and discuss mental health challenges within their own families and communities. I think any time a black man is willing to talk openly about his mental health with his community, it plants a seed for change.
6. Do you think mental illness is viewed or treated differently in communities of color?
I think mental health is treated like a tool in this country, and the way that tool is used is determined by whose interest is being served. When youth of color “act out” or behave “aggressively” they are criminalized, while you see white youth perpetrate the same behaviors and crimes and get treatment for their illnesses.
7. What do you think we can do to help young people and/or survivors of gun violence protect their mental health?
One tangible step we can take is to create, fund, and support restorative justice and emergency grief response programs that are led by community and grassroots service providers with the support of local law enforcement and victims units. These programs will focus specifically on the highest committing localities and be in place to respond accordingly whenever youth commit or experience harm. We can also partner with local news stations to broadcast youth-led PSAs with targeted messaging around ending gun violence.
8. What do you want people to know about mental health, trauma, and gun violence that they might not already know?
I want people to know that mental health, trauma, and gun violence are all connected and feed each other. We are conditioned to deal with issues on the surface, which distracts us from dealing with the root cause. We get so caught up in trying to change a person’s behavior that we miss the opportunity to change their environment. Changing their environment will impact people’s decision-making, their mental health, and ultimately, criminal activity including gun violence.