A few years ago I worked in a residential program for adolescents and emerging adults in Chicago, Illinois. The program has a no-drug use policy. Violation of this rule leads to consequences. One of my clients returned back to program " smelling like weed " (marijuana). He told me, " I know I smelled like weed so I went to the store, bought some Febreze and sprayed it all over my clothes. " I asked him, " What did you smell like then? " He stated, " weed and Febreze. " He was told by program staff that for violating the no substance use policy he will lose weekend home pass privileges the following Friday.
During our session he stated, "I'm going on pass anyway! Even if it means I will get kicked out of here and violate my court ordered probation. The staff does not understand. I turn 21 on Friday. A number of my friends were murdered and never lived to see their 21st birthday. I did not smoke weed on pass. I knew curfew at the program was 10 PM. I weighed my options to get back to the program. I could have called Uber, but I don't have a credit card. I could have waited for the bus, but 3 of my friends were shot on the bus stop and cabs don't run in my neighborhood. As you know, my neighborhood is so dangerous, they call it Chi-Raq (because of the high homicide rate in Chicago attributed to gang rivalries the cities murder rate has been compared to the U.S. war in Iraq). The best option I had was to get a ride from my friends. They were smoking weed in the car as they drove me back to the program. I'm angry!"
Many of the youth whom I work with become less effective problem solvers when angry. I helped him figure out a negotiation compromise, so that he would not violate his probation on his birthday. Instead of going home on pass he successfully negotiated a trip to downtown Chicago where he shopped and went to dinner. As the session ended, I asked him a closing question. "How long do most Black Men live? " He stated, "Most Black men don't live to see their 21st birthday." I have asked this question periodically throughout the years to adolescent and emerging adult African American males and their answers have always been similar. When I ask for proof they usually say, "Several of my friends have been killed and I watch the news at night." This is an existential concern, which lead some the young men I work with to conclude: "Why should I stop getting high? Why should I finish school? Why should I leave the gang? I'll be dead soon anyway."
During my next session with the young man who negotiated a downtown pass, I shared with him City of Chicago and Illinois Department of Public Health statistics in order to dispel the myth that most Black men don't live to see their 21st birthday. Here is the data I shared: Chicago averages 500 murders per year, with a 200 murder increase this year. There are 40,000 annual births in the city of Chicago and 2.7 million residents live in the city. When you add the residents of the surrounding suburbs the number of residents increases to 9 million. Over the course of the past 20 years 112 people in his neighborhood (Chi-Raq) have been murdered. Their are 73 thousand people who reside in his neighborhood. I showed him public health statistics which revealed that the life expectancy of Black males living in Chicago is age 70 not 21.
The young man was silent for a moment. Then he stated, "This means I can live! I'll have to take a little time to think about this. This means I have to get serious about my life." For those of you working with young African American males diagnosed with Substance Abuse or Substance Use Disorders may need to address this existential concern in treatment. Why should I stop getting high, when I'll be dead soon anyway?