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Serving on a Gun Violence Task Force – Reflections of a CMHNetwork Graduate Student Intern

May 07, 2020

Often, when we think of the term “task force,” we think of a law enforcement unit tasked with disengaging organized criminal activity. While task forces work to determine and act on resolutions to an issue, these groups are often structured in a manner to bring together individuals with experience in skill in developing positions on controversial or complex issues. These issues may include immigrant reform, homeland security, or, as we’ve seen a lot lately, infectious diseases like COVID-19. As a graduate student in the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Masters of Science Degree Program at the University of South Florida, I’ve spent the last two semesters of my graduate experience working with the Children’s Mental Health Network. My responsibilities included representing the Network on a national task force organized by Youth Era, with the specific purpose of addressing the epidemic of gun violence and its impact on children, adolescents, and their families.

Youth Era creates solutions for communities across the country that look beyond short-term assistance for the few and toward sustainable support for the many. Similar to the Network, Youth Era’s mission has a child and adolescent behavioral health focus. With goals to (1) identify and advocate for the needs of young people struggling with mental health and addiction challenges and (2) building community relationships with youth-serving agencies and providers, Youth Era is dedicated to amplifying youth and young adult voices in policy and decision making.

Serving on a task force was a new experience for me. However, I came into the group with experience of working with a sober home task force comprised of state and federal police officers, agents and inspectors from various departments, who were charged with dismantling the ‘Florida shuffle,’ a term used to describe the endless cycle of patients bouncing between substance abuse treatment centers and then relapsing into drug abuse. The opportunity to gain firsthand experience in task force work related to the behavioral health outcomes of children and adolescents impacted by gun violence was even more relevant to the focus of my field experience.

The Gun Violence Task Force met once a month via Zoom, and often the planning occurred via email. The first task force conference call focused on introductions of task force members and the purpose behind the task force. Following, discussions of scheduling for meetings and role assignments took place. On the second task force conference call, defining the population of focus was a hot topic. Before the second task force conference call, I expected that they would be focusing on children and adolescents impacted by all forms of gun violence (e.g., intimate partner violence, suicide, school shootings, mass shootings, and community violence). However, the discussion regarding the focus was one that initially seemed somewhat limiting, in that the task force members primarily focused on mass shootings. Initially, I advocated for the task force to focus on children and adolescents impacted by all forms of gun violence and learned quickly that task forces typically don’t adopt broad focal areas for many reasons. A broad focus related to children impacted by gun violence would have resulted in the task force, possibly ending up being too general, rather than focusing on one key area and producing a detailed set of recommendations.

Once I understood the importance of narrowing the focus of task force work, the group collectively decided that the population focus of the group would be children impacted by school shootings. Narrowing the focus to this problem, population, and setting would allow for the task force to hyper-focus efforts to develop realistic and practical recommendations. The goal established by the task force was to develop postvention supports for survivors, such as a database of school shooting survivors.

Scheduling was sometimes a barrier to furthering the task force work. Busy schedules created challenges in aligning schedules for additional conference calls. However, it didn’t stop communication via electronic means. The team engaged in conversation about pursuing funding for the database pilot, as discussed in the second conference call. Some members of the task force identified different grant and funding opportunities and presented them to the general task force, which led to discussion towards what approach would allow for the task force to fulfill the components of the grant best. In identifying strategies that appealed to the focus of the task force, the group identified concepts such as conducting an exploratory analysis to gather qualitative data such as interviews or utilizing a mixed-methods approach, which consists of a blending of quantitative and qualitative data. Both approaches would lend towards determining what would be the best supports for child and adolescent survivors of school shootings, which would lead to the development of policy recommendations.

I’ve served on many committees and workgroups; however, serving on a task force brought a different experience as the purpose of a task force is to hyper-focus on acquiring information on how to best respond to unexpected or unanticipated events such as school shootings. I found myself on a committee of experts in the field of research, academia, gun violence, mass shootings, and child and adolescent behavioral health with widely divergent views brought together to accomplish a specific objective for a distinct population. Serving on the task force included the opportunity to work with clinical psychologist Sarah R. Lowe, PhD, of the Yale School of Public Health after I had referenced her review of 49 studies assessing the psychological effects of 15 mass shootings in previous coursework. Dr. Lowe’s research on long-term mental health consequences of a range of potentially traumatic events, as well as the impact of such events on other domains of functioning, such as physical health, social relationships, and economic wellbeing, was relevant to the purpose of the task force. With her presence and the presence of other experts in the field, I grasped the notion that task forces are developed with individuals skilled in research or work relevant to the topic in mind.

Being a novice to this type of group work, I found it important to keep my thoughts and ideas broad, open, and accepting, to engage those who potentially may have different viewpoints effectively. In narrowing the focus of the task force, I gauged the importance of ensuring that the group sought a solution that worked for all members of the task force. In doing so, this would allow for task force members to engage in collaborative problem solving and be much more committed to seeing the solution through.

Circumstantially, one thing I learned serving on a task force was that when you fold in a pandemic, furthering the work becomes difficult as members may experience some displacement amongst their work, school, and family life and must shift focus to events outside of the task force. While the task force has halted planning until a bit of normalcy is restored for members, the planning efforts haven’t been futile as the task force is well on its way to impacting change and developing resources for child and adolescent school shooting survivors.

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About the Author

Nekesha Nash

Nekesha Nash is in the Master of Science degree program in Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health with a concentration in Leadership at the University of South Florida. Nekesha has worked as a case manager determining eligibility for public benefits and currently works as a director over the licensing, designation, and monitoring of substance abuse treatment providers and Baker Act receiving facilities in the state of Florida. During her internship, Nekesha will represent the Children’s Mental Health Network on a task force in the development stages to address gun violence. Nekesha’s focus on the task force will be examining and researching information related to mental illness and mass shootings. Nekesha is excited for the opportunity to work with the Children’s Mental Health Network and disseminate information related to the progress of the task force initiatives to stakeholders and supporters of the CMHN through the Morning Zen posts and other communicative means.

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