Violence is a Public Health Issue by Elizabeth White

When doing our weekly “high and low” check-in, Alexa* shared her low: her uncle was shot over the weekend. No one in the room was shocked, instead the girls just nodded their heads. Especially at Girls in the Game’s teens programs, this topic isn’t uncommon. In fact, experiences with community violence are the norm, not the exception for our participants.

According to ABC News, Chicago “saw 3,550 shooting incidents and 762 murders last year, a grim total that works out to an average of more than two murders and nearly 10 shootings every single day.”

If one of our girls shared that her uncle had the flu, we would offer empathy, suggestions for care/treatment, and concern for transmission to the girl. We would believe it to be preventable and curable. Why then, don’t we approach violence in the same way? After all, violence is a social determinant of health; it is contagious and epidemic in nature.

The greatest predictor of violence is preceding cases of violence, as with other infectious diseases. Violence is an unconsciously learned behavior and requires public health interventions. These health approaches are multidisciplinary, collaborative, prevention-focused and evidence-based without moral judgment.

Slutkin (2016) paints a picture of violence through a public health framework:

“Like lead poisoning, violence impairs the ability of children to learn (23). Like people exposed to influenza spread influenza (24), violence causes more violence (25), expressing itself as outbreaks of retaliations and clusters of suicides. Like tobacco use, violence spreads through social networks (26), becoming increasingly acceptable and commonplace. Like the Ebola virus, violence generates fear, distrust, and panic (27)—stigmatizing communities where clusters of cases occur and limiting opportunities for communities to come together. Doctors, nurses and other health workers try as hard as possible to save the victims of violence. We all recognize the iconic image of a team of doctors and nurses desperately trying to save a patient who has been shot. But another essential role for the health and public health sectors, and other sectors is to help people and communities be safe in the first place—to minimize the negative impacts of violence related to trauma that contributes to the degradation of mental health and health overall (28).”

At Girls in the Game, we utilize a trauma-informed approach in our programming to contribute to this public health approach to violence. This means we focus on the strengths of our girls, we understand the impacts of trauma and operate under the assumption that all girls may have experienced trauma in their lives, and we are committed to encouraging a sense of empowerment and control for our girls.

media messages
Members of Girls in the Game’s Teen Squad with positive media messages they want to see in the future.

One of Girls the Game’s driving values is: “We aim for quality. We are thoughtful stewards, results-oriented and data-driven. Above all, we work with an ongoing awareness of the needs of girls and are tireless in our efforts to meet them.” Not only are we responsive to our own data and outcomes from working with the girls, but we aim to utilize and advocate for evidence-based theories of practice. We aim to be a gamechanger in shifting norms away from moralistic judgments about those individuals and communities affected by violence and from the idea that we can simply stigmatize, punish, and arrest our way out of violence.

Our girls are in the middle of an epidemic, and Girls in the Game is proud to stand up to violence as a public health issue.

*Name changed

Resources & thank you

For more information and resources related to this topic, please visit:

A special thank you to Strengthening Chicago’s Youth ( for their training on this topic.


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