January 28, 2020


How Two Psychology Professors Earned $6 Million to Support Chicago Youth at Risk of Violence

DePaul psychology professors W. LaVome Robinson and Leonard A. Jason recently received a $6.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to reduce African American youth violence. Robinson leads the project, Success Over Stress, reaching ninth graders in Chicago Public Schools. The program teaches coping skills to deal with stress, enhance resilience, and prevent interpersonal violence and suicide. The award is the largest research grant DePaul has ever received. In this episode, Robinson and Jason—collaborators for nearly 40 years—talk about the Success Over Stress Violence Prevention Project and how their work connects to DePaul’s Vincentian mission.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I’m your host, Linda Blakley, vice President of University Marketing and Communications.

Drs. LaVome Robinson and Leonard Jason are DePaul psychology professors who have been teaching at DePaul, where they have been research collaborators for nearly 40 years. Recently, the duo reached another milestone. The National Institutes of Health awarded them a $6.6 million grant, the largest in DePaul’s history. The grant supports the professors’ violence prevention project, Success Over Stress.

Through this project, the professors teach adaptive coping strategies to African-American teenagers in Chicago Public Schools to prevent interpersonal violence and suicide. Teens in CPS help them develop and customize the intervention for their peers. Social workers are now being trained to deliver the program so they can reach more students. Today, the two professors will tell us more about their work.

Professor Robinson, Professor Jason, thank you for joining me.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Congrats on your $6.6 million National Institutes of Mental Health grant. What’s the significance of this particular grant? What makes it important, Dr. Robinson?

DR. LAVOME ROBINSON: When there is a need, it is important that there is some way to respond to the need. And over the years, we’ve been working on interventions that the children will respond to positively and make a difference in their lives. And over the years, we have developed and evaluated an intervention that does that. And we want to take it from the research realm into the service realm where more children will have access, that the intervention will be indigenous to the school system, and it’s no longer reliant upon grant funding, but those who work with the children on a day-to-day basis will know best practices that are evidence-based to provide the services that they need.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Professor Jason, anything to add about the importance of this work?

DR. LEONARD JASON: This is important for the city, this is important for the state, this is important for the nation, particularly because so much attention has been given to the issue of violence for Chicago, that we can be part of the solution, but it’s also important for the university because it provides us an opportunity to train students to give students opportunities to learn about what it means to give back to the community. So, in a sense, it’s very Vincentian. It’s very much within the spirit of our university to have a research project that also has opportunities for service and opportunities for teaching.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Dr. Robinson, you’re the principal investigator on this grant and it funds your Success Over Stress project. Can you give us a brief overview of Success Over Stress?

DR. LAVOME ROBINSON: It’s a 15-session model. We deliver the intervention within the school during the regular school day, but during non-instructional periods. The sessions are about 45 minutes in duration. We meet with eight to 10 students at a time in a group setting with a group facilitator. The group facilitators have experience in working with African-American teenagers and they all have advanced training, at least a master’s degree in one of the helping professions.

Over the course of 15 sessions, we do a number of things. Of course, in the beginning, we get to know each other, a lot of icebreaker exercises, and establishing group rules about privacy. Whenever you work in a group, of course, there is no such thing as confidentiality, but we do make group rules and group contracts that the groups will be a safe zone where the children feel that they can talk about what they need to talk about and not hear about it when they get in the hall. We ask the students in the group to make a contract with each other that what happens in group basically stays in group, and we’ve not had any issues with that, so that the students can feel very, very comfortable talking about the things that are of concern to them.

Some of the things are very, very distressful and they need a place to talk about these things in a safe atmosphere. And then we talk about what is stress because I think people and the children, they know sometimes that they don’t feel well, I don’t feel right, but they don’t really know what it is and how it came to be. So we have them understand what stress is, what it feels like, what are some of the things that can cause stress. First, just understanding the whole construct of stress, and then we talk about ways in which we can manage and reduce stress, and even sometimes avoid stress.

After understanding what it is and what it feels like, then we have a series of sessions about different ways that the children can reduce their stress. They have basically a toolbox because no one method necessarily works with every child, and one method may work in this scenario, but in another scenario, you need another method. We want them to feel very, very prepared that they are able to meet whatever challenge that should arise. And just that understanding, I think, that I have a skill and I can prepare myself, I think, goes a long way in terms of them feeling confident about what they need to do on a day-to-day basis.

We do things like relaxation training, problem solving, positive thinking, consequential thinking, you know, if I do X, what’s the likelihood or consequence for that behavior versus if I do Y, so they don’t just sort of do things impulsively without thinking about it, and understanding that for every behavior there is a consequence, and to make decisions and choices that will give them more desirable consequences rather than less desirable consequences. And then, you know, of course, we have ceremonial activities at the end. We actually give them certificates of completion. And we have parties. It’s a bittersweet time because invariably the children want us to stay and we can’t stay. It’s kind of sad and sweet both.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What makes this project important to you, Dr. Robinson?

DR. LAVOME ROBINSON: For myself as a psychologist, you know, I would like to make a difference in the human existence. It’s not enough, I think, to talk about things in the abstract. I think it’s important to have real application and to not just sort of be a student of psychology but a person who can promote psychology and produce psychology and actually impact people. That is very fulfilling for me because the intervention has been borne out on several efficacy trials and it’s very robust. I’m very happy about that.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Dr. Jason, what makes it important for you?

DR. LEONARD JASON: Chicago is a place where there’s a tremendous amount of violence. We’re nationally seen as a place that has hundreds of killings and shootings. So we have youth who are being exposed to a tremendous amount of violence. And how does a young person try to understand why could this occur to them? This is a very stressful time to sort of be going from a school block to other block and actually trying to avoid some of the types of shootings and some of the types of gun violence that occurs, unfortunately, in our neighborhoods at very high proportions. When we think about these youth who are at such vulnerable times in their lives and we think to ourselves we can do better, we can help prepare them for some of the types of stressors that they actually confront on a day-by-day basis, it’s our responsibility to do this. That’s why we do it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: A follow-up question for you, Dr. Jason. I saw an interview where you talked about what an achievement it’s been to see this project go from efficacy to effectiveness. What did you mean by that?

DR. LEONARD JASON: There’s a lot of programs that are advertised and promoted where people say we’re going to basically be able to reduce kind of children’s reactions to these types of stressors, we can help prepare children for dealing with violence better, and they make these types of kind of statements, but do they have evidence to support them? Efficacy is really saying does it work. When you have experts who go into these school settings, can they deliver programs that really make a difference? That’s the key difference between what’s called empirically supported versus something that just says, well, it sounds like a good idea, but who knows whether it works or not. What we have is years of experience actually finding out that this program works. So our next step, besides having experts come in who are trained as really mental health professionals come in and do these programs, can we have individuals from the schools themselves, social workers, deliver these interventions. That’s what effectiveness is.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Your grant, Dr. Robinson, was sizeable. I’d like to know what else could you accomplish if you had even more funding. What could you do to further expand this work?

DR. LAVOME ROBINSON: The first thing, of course, is we could reach more children because we could take the program into more schools. There is a very serious burgeoning problem in terms of violence and suicidality among younger African-American children, particularly in the 5 to 12-year-old age group. The trend is very disturbing. And there are no programs for these children, preventive programs. You see, the one thing about suicide and violence, they’re preventable, but how do you prevent them. That’s the big question. The program we have is suitable for 9th graders and above. The cognitive level of a younger child will probably not be sophisticated enough or developed enough for the current intervention, but the intervention could be developmentally adapted. I would very much like an opportunity to do that so that we could reach that younger age group where the trend is becoming very, very alarming. The grant allows us to do a 24-month follow-up. But I would very much like to be able to follow these young children that we will work with in the 9th grade all the way until high school completion because I believe that these children probably will have better outcomes in terms of the coming in contact with the juvenile justice system, graduation from high school, job opportunities, and other things that I would like to be able to keep up with these children to see how they are doing.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Many people outside DePaul might not realize that this level of research is happening here. How are teaching and research woven together in your work?

DR. LEONARD JASON: There’s a lot of people at DePaul University who are scholars in the classroom, scholars in their practice doing service, and scholars in basically doing research. That’s something that I think it’s good to get that word out so that more people know that because we really do make a difference in the scientific journals. We are people who are trained in clinical and community psychology. And just to let you know, our clinical PhD program and our community PhD program are known nationally. We are one of the top places in the country for training PhD-level individuals to learn the skills and competencies to go out into academia, community settings, not-for-profits and make a difference. We are very delighted to sort of see that this is one example of the many types of interventions and programs that our psychology department, our college, and our university are doing on a day-by-day basis for the larger community of Chicago.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Any estimate on the number of students you’ve launched into graduate programs through DePaul’s Center for Community Research?

DR. LEONARD JASON: For the last 20 years, the Center for Community Research has existed, and it was actually earlier version for 20 years before that. But just the last 20 years, we’ve had 260 individuals who have basically been volunteers or staff at our center who are now basically successful going through graduate school.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Dr. Robinson, you have been collaborating (with Dr. Jason) at DePaul for nearly 40 years. What do you credit for the longevity of your research careers?

DR. LAVOME ROBINSON: That’s a very interesting question. If you are on a research path, programmatic research, step by step by step, and every step seems to yield something different and begs for the next step. Just as I just mentioned to you, it’s real clear to me that there are other studies that need to occur and should occur. You sort of feel compelled to do it because it’s a human issue.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Dr. Jason, your work strikes me as very Vincentian, seeing a need and addressing it. Can you tell me how your work aligns with DePaul’s mission?

DR. LEONARD JASON: DePaul basically tries to make a difference with solving community problems. St. Vincent de Paul did wonderful work, and we basically try to do similar types of things. We’re in a sense basically living out the Vincentian dream. When we think about why we can stay connected with these types of issues for so long, in my case, 45 years, it’s because we have the same types of passion that basically started DePaul University and started the Vincentian mission, that we have passion, we have dedication, we have commitment. And when you have things like that, you can work a long time.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I have one closing question for both of you. I’ll start with you, Dr. Robinson. What can we do as people living and working in Chicago to be more mindful of the stress and life challenges faced by those with whom we live and work?

DR. LAVOME ROBINSON: I think to not pigeonhole or stereotype individuals because we’re working with 9th graders and a lot of people would not work with 9th graders, kids who have probably started to have some level of difficulty or problems. A lot of people want to work with the younger kids. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The feeling is that if you can’t get to them when they’re young, by the time they are teenagers, it’s probably a lost cause. One very interesting thing about our program and the research, it documents and demonstrates that children are very amenable to change, even in the 9th grade or older, and we have to have the spirit and the willingness and tenacity to work with them and not write them off.


DR. LEONARD JASON: We have the resources within our psychology department and the Center for Community Research to make a real difference with some of the pressing problems that Chicago faces. DePaul University and our students that work with us can really collaborate on dealing with the stressors to really change the way we encounter them proactively, really make a difference. We just want to find ways that we can not just work on this program but work on a host of programs. If we have the resources to do those types of things, we can really make Chicago a safer, more livable place to live, and a place that has less stress.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Dr. Robinson and Dr. Jason, at a time when many people are asking how violence in our communities can be stopped, you are providing an answer to the question ‘what must be done?’ And for that, we thank you. And thanks to all of our listeners for joining us for this episode of DePaul Download presented by DePaul’s Division of University Marketing and Communications.