Epidemic: Spreading rapidly and extensively by infection and affecting many individuals in an area or a population at the same time.

Infection : the act or result of affecting injuriously.

*While bullies, gangs, weapons, and substance abuse all contribute to the fear experienced by many of today’s students, violence in America’s neighborhoods and communities cannot be overlooked.

More than ever before, today’s schools are serving children from dysfunctional homes, children living in poverty, children of teenage parents, and special education students. Unfortunately, resources to adequately serve the total range of needs presented by these students are becoming increasingly limited. Adequate parental supervision and control of these students has weakened, and many students have diminished respect for all forms of authority, including the authority of school personnel.

As a result, schools are confronted with problems of students possessing weapons, students involved with gang recruitment and rivalry, and students engaged in drug trafficking, both as sellers and buyers. Such problems lead to violent acts in and around schools. In order to create a safe environment that is conducive to learning, schools must implement safety plans and comprehensive prevention programs that address the root causes of violence.

Almost without exception, every major city in America is seeing record numbers of young people; mostly African American males die as a result of gun violence.

Although high-profile school student shootings has increased public concern for student safety, you may be surprised to know that school-associated violent deaths account for less than 1% of homicides among school-aged children and youth.

So you see, this is not a “school problem.”

At what point do we start to see this as a public health epidemic? A public health approach treats violence like we treat a disease, like we treat an epidemic.

We can start with the mental health component.

Mental and behavioral health is an essential component of young peoples’ overall health and wellbeing. It affects how young people think, feel, and act; their ability to learn and engage in relationships; their self-esteem and ability to evaluate situations, options and make choices. A person’s mental health influences their ability to handle stress, relate to other people, and make decisions.

Four million children and adolescents in this country suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, at school, and with peers. It is estimated that one in 10 children and adolescents suffer from mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment. However, in any given year, it is estimated that fewer than one in five of such children receives needed treatment.

Who’s calling for increases in mental health services available to these young people?

An alarming 65% of boys and 75% of girls in juvenile detention have at least one mental disorder. We are incarcerating youth with mental disorders, some as young as 8 years old, rather than identifying their disorders early and intervening with appropriate treatment.

Early and effective mental health treatment can prevent a significant proportion of delinquent and violent youth from future violence and crime.

The contribution of social factors to the health problems of young African American men deserves further attention than thus far received.

Young African American men die at a rate that is at least 1.5 times the rate of young white men, and almost three times the rate of young Asian men. While the death rate drops for men ages 25 to 29 for most groups, it continues to rise among African Americans.

Are we silly enough to believe that this is because Young African American men are at the bottom of the evolutionary chain? Have you heard of Health Disparities?

With any other cause of death where African Americans suffer disproportionately (heart disease, cancer, diabetes), it is universally accepted that education, access, social/economic factors are centrally responsible factors. Why are we ignoring not applying the same logic with the public health epidemic of youth violence?

Throughout history, “Epidemics” are commonly thought to involve outbreaks of acute infectious disease, such as measles, polio, or streptococcal sore throat. If this were a Flu epidemic, all sorts of vaccines and preventive measure would be put in place and implemented. Unfortunately, just like the Cholera in Haiti, it gets the headlines for a few days, then a return to business as usual.

We are so consumed and focused on “blaming’ Public School Superintendents and Police Commissioners across America for not doing enough, we can’t see the forest for the trees! We have conveniently put this issue in a neat little box called “youth violence”.

Education is one of the strongest predictors of health: the more schooling people have the better their health is likely to be. Although education is highly correlated with income and occupation, evidence suggests that education exerts the strongest influence on health. More formal education is consistently associated with lower death rates, while less education predicts earlier death. The less schooling people have, the higher their levels of risky health behaviors, such as smoking, being overweight, or having a low level of physical activity. High school completion is a useful measure of educational attainment because its influence on health is well studied, and it is widely recognized as the minimum entry requirement for higher education and well-paid employment. A public health approach focuses on risk factors and protective factors. It does not focus on a reactive response of criminal justice, which makes the threat of punishment a primary deterrent.

Seldom have health and education professionals been in a better position to work together to achieve common goals. Rarely has a single problem contributed to so many adverse social, economic, and health conditions. Our nation’s young people deserve no less than a concerted effort to give young people a gateway to lifetime health and success.

Interventions to reduce school dropout rates seek to change individuals, families, schools, school systems, or public policies related to poverty, welfare, or employment.

The problem of youth violence is complex and our response needs to draw on the best that all sectors and disciplines have to offer.

Youth violence and school safety is a public health problem. Let’s not be in denial.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible.

Glenn Ellis lectures and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics, including health equity and health promotion particularly relevant to the African-American community. For more good health information, visit:www.glennellis.com