Breaking the Cycle: Mental Health, Violence and Crime

Curtis Mozie from the Tale of the Tape Foundation. (Photo by Kristian Hernandez)

Curtis Mozie, videographer, author and founder of The Tale of the Tape Foundation, has witnessed death and violence firsthand on the streets of D.C. for over thirty years. (Photo by Kristian Hernandez)

He ran across the street looking for help leaving a trail of blood. The 19-year-old collapsed at the entrance of the nearby Kennedy Recreation Center, where his close friend Curtis Mozie worked.

Mozie remembers seeing him laying on the floor bleeding from a stab wound to his heart as he rushed to help him. He gave the teen CPR and brought him back to life twice, but when the medics arrived it was too late. Dalontray Williams, the boy people often mistook as Mozie’s little brother, passed away in his arms.

It was one more loss for a man who has spent years documenting the violence of DC’s streets.

Even though Mozie remains behind the yellow tape of violence and crime in his community, witnessing violent death first hand for the past 33 years has been detrimental to his mental health. He suffers from post-traumatic stress and thinks often about the role such stress plays in the community. He wonders if un-diagnosed mental disorders contribute to the cycle of the city’s violence.

Of the community, he says, “They are like walking time bombs and that’s why a lot of these people are going off. They’re going crazy, because they are not getting any help.”

In 1981, Mozie started The Tale of Tape Foundation and began recording the lives and deaths of hundreds of people in ward six who were victims of violent crime.

Mozie, better known as C-Webb, has devoted his life to helping young at-risk kids like Williams. Mozie believes he can make a difference by documenting the violence and death that plague his neighborhood.

A memorial inside Mozie's house. (Photo by Kristian Hernandez)

A memorial inside Mozie’s house. (Photo by Kristian Hernandez)

Mozie, now 55 years-old, has lost 85 of his close friends to violent crime. At his home, he lives surrounded by their photos. They cover his living room walls from floor to ceiling. This memorial, along with memorial videos he produces, are sometimes all the families of these victims have left.

Two years ago, after Williams died in his arms, Mozie decided to take a break from videotaping. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and realized that exposing himself to violent crimes and homicides was affecting his mental health.

He got help, but he started to wonder: he wasn’t the only one to witness the violence of DC’s worst streets. Most of the kids and young adults he has encountered in the streets, some of them now dead or in jail, also suffer from similar mental disorders caused by their exposure to violent crimes, Mozie thinks now. But most of them have never received any therapy or treatment.

Others in the District agree: the violent crime that takes lives leaves other victims, too.

Julia Dunkins, who runs a District support group called Survivors of Homicide, said that for every murder there are at least 10 to 20 people directly affected and left with permanent trauma.

At her weekly group meetings, Dunkins will most often see the victim’s mother reaching out for support. But she said it is rare to see any other member of the immediate family receive any sort of help.

Dr. Donna Barnes, a professor and sociologist at Howard University, explains that a homicide does not only affect the immediate family of a victim, but spreads deep into a community, hurting countless people.

“A homicide in a neighborhood leaves in it’s wake a very traumatic community, including neighbors, the institutions and people in the community, the families, the friends, and relatives of that family,” Barnes said. “It affects everybody.”

Mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety often go untreated in kids and young adults, according to Barnes.

If left untreated, she said, these mental disorders often manifest themselves in self-destructive ways such as violent crime, drug use, homicide or suicide.

Dr. Laura Hayes, a psychologist in Baltimore, Md., believes these mental disorders lead to a much broader cultural problem of anger management.

“When they go off and start killing someone, it is almost always because of aggressiveness, and their inability to manage intense feelings,” Hayes said.

Hayes works with juveniles that are in jail for violent crimes. She said the majority of them suffer from intermittent explosive disorder, a disorder of anger management.

She explains that anger is part of our basic biological reaction to danger, the fight or flight response.

“It would help our ancestors survive but in today’s world can often cause more hindrance than help,” Hayes said.

According to Hayes, the angrier you feel, the less clearly you can think, and therefore the less able you are to negotiate and effectively handle a provocation.

She recommends anger management skills such as mindfulness training that can help reduce anxiety, depression, and stress.

Barnes and Hayes both agree that not enough is being done to help people suffering from trauma before they resort to violence and risky behavior. They believe the result is that many of them end up dead. Others are arrested… and likely not for the first time.

Last year, 89 percent of murder suspects from 2012 to 2013 had been arrested at least once before, according to figures from MPD.

“The system is really failing repeat offenders,” Hayes said. “Systems are not in place to provide the right treatment and follow up.”

Hayes said these issues should be stopped at the source before these mentally unstable people negatively affect their communities.

Hayes and Barnes both suggest the best way to begin treating mental disorders is not in jail but in schools. Barnes believes adding more counselors in schools will help stop this problem early on.

Hayes said she would like to see a standard anger management curriculum in schools where students can learn to deal with stress and other internal issues.

She recommends people suffering from mental disorders and uncontrollable anger seek professional help, but suggests everyone practice mindfulness techniques to help maintain a good mental health.

Below is a list of websites that include some of the same techniques Hayes uses to treat her patients suffering from mental health disorders and anger management problems.

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