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Harnessing positive emotions to prevent burnout among gun violence interrupters

Proven gun violence-prevention programs 'come at a cost to the frontline workers'
gun violence
READI Chicago is an innovative program designed to reduce gun violence.

In his recent State of the Union address, President Joe Biden mentioned pouring more federal funding into crime prevention and investing in “proven strategies like community violence interruption.” 

Part of the allotted federal funding also is going toward supporting those interrupting the violence by teaching them how to cope with the daily stresses of such a mentally and physically taxing job.

That’s where Northwestern University’s Judith Moskowitz and her team come in. 

For decades, Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, has been studying the effects of positive-emotion skills to cope with stress. She developed a toolbox of eight skills that help with this, which she has tested in various trials with people with serious illness, those caring for people with dementia, people with depression and high school students, among others. 

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There’s good evidence these programs are helpful and are reducing gun violence, but the work comes at a cost to the frontline workers, and anything we can do to support them in doing this work then helps prevention in the future. 

Judith Moskowitz

Now, Moskowitz and collaborator Elizabeth Addington, an assistant professor of medical social sciences at Feinberg and a Northwestern Medicine clinical psychologist, are using their body of evidence-based skills to help support Chicago’s frontline violence-prevention workers. 

Moskowitz has been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop and pilot test the FOREST (Fostering Optimal Regulation of Emotion to prevent Secondary Trauma) program to help workers at READI Chicago, an innovative program designed to reduce gun violence. 

READI Chicago provides community-based outreach, psychosocial support and job-skills training to adults living in Chicago neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of unemployment, poverty and firearm injury and mortality. It has successfully helped more than 1,600 men in Chicago.  

“I’m honored to be able to have even a small part in helping READI do the amazing work they’re doing,” Moskowitz said in a recent interview for Feinberg’s Breakthroughs podcast. “There’s good evidence these programs are helpful and are reducing gun violence, but the work comes at a cost to the frontline workers, and anything we can do to support them in doing this work then helps prevention in the future.” 

How psychology, gun-violence prevention intersect

In 2019, Moskowitz attended a special session at an American Psychological Association conference on how psychology can have an impact on one of society’s biggest problems: gun violence. She said she was riveted during a guest lecture from Eddie Bocanegra, who joined Chicago-based Heartland Alliance in 2017 to develop and launch READI Chicago. 

“When I heard Eddie speak, I just got really excited about the work they were doing and wanted to help,” Moskowitz recalled. “I wasn’t even thinking about my research. I was a fan. I said, I’m a psychologist, I’m in Chicago, how can I help you?” 

When Bocanegra learned about her unique toolbox of positive-emotions skills, he asked her to incorporate them at READI Chicago to help reduce burnout. 

Positive skills can open Pandora’s box of negative emotions

Moskowitz began by recruiting READI Chicago staff members who would train to eventually incorporate these skills into their workplace. During initial focus groups, one of the changes suggested by the trainers was to make the curriculum more trauma sensitive. For instance, mindfulness might be triggering to some, since it requires a person to sit with sometimes uncomfortable and challenging emotions. To better understand this, she invited to her team Northwestern Medicine investigator and psychologist Inger Burnett-Zeigler, who has decades of clinical experience helping people with stress, trauma, anxiety and depression.

“We’re focused on positive emotions, but we’re also really clear about not ignoring negative emotions,” Moskowitz said. “It’s not possible to start delving into these skills of positive emotions without opening up a potential Pandora’s box of the negative emotions. They all come out, which is good, but we also don’t want to cause harm.” 

The first two years of Moskowitz’s NIH-funded period will focus on refining the curriculum. And in the fall of 2023, if they’ve met their NIH benchmarks, they’ll be awarded the second phase of the project, which involves training the trainers who will begin bringing these positive emotion tools to the violence-prevention workers.   

One of the positive emotion ambassadors from the original training group, Tristion McDowell, summarized the benefits of the skills this way: “It feels almost like going outside with a raincoat. If you go out with a sweater, you get rained on and your shirt gets heavy; You have to carry that burden. The raincoat allows that stuff to wash off of you. Oftentimes at READI, we’re standing in the rain all the time. I feel like we’re often the people who need to remember why we’re here and remind us [by] giving us tools to not let these things weigh us down.”

“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Moskowitz said, reflecting on McDowell’s quote. “I think it’s such a great metaphor for what we’re trying to do — give people this resource, this source of resilience when you’re experiencing stress.”

Other co-investigators on the project are Lisa Hirschhorn, professor of medical social sciences and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg, and Gregory Phillips, assistant professor of medical social sciences and preventive medicine at Feinberg, as well as Andrew Papachristos, professor of sociology and the director of the Northwestern Neighborhood & Network (N3) Initiative at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences. 

What are the eight positivity tools?

Moskowitz calls it a “toolbox model,” in that you don’t need to use all eight skills for them to work—just pick one or two you can keep doing consistently, she said. 

  • Noticing positive events. “Even in the midst of really awful stuff, there is always something positive. Humans didn’t evolve to notice the positives. We’re fine-tuned to notice the negative and run from them.”
  • Savoring or capitalizing on them. “Re-experience that positive event by telling someone about it, whether it’s on social media or in your journal.”
  • Gratitude. “Studies show when you note things you’re grateful for, it makes you happier and healthier.”
  • Positive reappraisal. “Reinterpreting something you initially saw as bad or stressful in a less stressful way. Making lemonade out of lemons. I’m always the one who says, ‘It could be so much worse. Let’s plan for that.’ But really taking a look at hey, it’s not that bad.”
  • Noticing personal strengths. “This can also include noticing coworkers’ personal strengths. The READI group was excellent at this.”
  • Attainable goals. “Create smart goals in the sweet spot where they’re not so easy you won’t need to try, but also they’re not so hard you’ll fail.”
  • Self-compassion. “Acknowledge that everyone is suffering. Talk to yourself like you’re a good friend. So often we find ourselves talking to ourselves in critical ways we’d never talk to our friends.”
  • Mindful awareness. “Focus on whatever is happening in the present moment without trying to change it, but instead simply noticing it for what it is, as it is. We can be mindful of our internal experience: thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, as well as our external experience: sights, sounds, things going on around us.”
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