Analysis: African Americans face harmful mental health effects every time high-profile incidents of racism and police brutality go viral, especially when little changes in the aftermath.
Headline after headline, the same story: a black American dead.
George Floyd, after a police officer knelt on his neck. Ahmaud Arbery, while on a jog in Georgia. Breonna Taylor, while police raided her Louisville, Kentucky, home.
And the ones before: Eric Garner, who couldn’t breathe. Philando Castile, in the car with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. Trayvon Martin, only a boy.
Scores of killings answered with acquittals. Now, as a pandemic rages, African Americans in communities across the country disproportionally devastated by COVID-19 are forced to bear witness to more deaths of black Americans.
The costs of these deaths ripple. When people of color experience racism, when they repeatedly witness racism, there is a profound emotional toll.
“The persistent pandemic is racism. That’s the pandemic. Recent deaths of individuals of color and the deleterious impact of COVID-19 on communities of color stems all the way from 1776,” said Alisha Moreland-Capuia, executive director of Oregon Health & Science University’s Avel Gordly Center for Healing, which focuses on culturally sensitive care for the African American community.
“The emotional and psychological impact of racism means acutely, every day, being reminded that you are not enough, being reminded that you are not seen, being reminded that you are not valued, being reminded that you are not a citizen, being reminded that humanity is not something that applies to you.”
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Research shows racism has harmful mental and physical effects. They can result from a person experiencing racism directly – as a bird-watcher did when a white woman in New York’s Central Park told police he was threatening her life when he asked her to leash her dog – or vicariously, such as someone watching the video of Floyd’s suffering.
Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety, and other serious, sometimes debilitating mental conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders, mental health experts say.
High-profile incidents of racism and police brutality, especially when accompanied by viral videos, are triggering for people of color who see how little changes in their aftermath.
Just bc it isn’t scary to you doesn’t mean it can’t be scary to me. what happened to George Floyd is traumatizing & I just seen another black man laid dying on the floor while protesting. These things make me think about the black men i know it’s scary af I’m allowed to be scared
— ItGIRL (@AaliyahJay) May 28, 2020
“Racism is traumatic for people of color,” said Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada, who studies African American mental health. “Everything that you have to carry around anyway as a black person in America, to add onto it having to watch people in your community who’ve done nothing killed at the hands of people in power who will probably suffer few, if any, consequences. I think there’s no better word to describe it than traumatizing.”
Four Minneapolis police officers were fired after Floyd’s death, but no criminal charges have been filed.
Williams’ niece, who is in Germany, tried to reach her this week after watching the footage of Floyd.
“She was so upset she couldn’t sleep,” Williams said.
Racial violence is ‘repetitive trauma’
The video that spread on social media this week shows officer Derek Chauvin driving his knee into Floyd’s neck as he repeatedly says, “I can’t breathe.”
This isn’t the first time those words reverberated through this nation’s conscience.
In 2014, Eric Garner was placed in a chokehold by white New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo after being arrested on suspicion of illegally selling loose cigarettes. His dying words were, “I can’t breathe.”
Pantaleo was fired in 2019, five years after Garner’s death.
These incidents influence the experience of being black in America – how dangerous it is to drive, jog, stand on a corner, or even sit at home. They underscore no space is safe.
“I can only describe the continued viewing of racial violence, torture, murder and disregard for the humanity of black bodies as repetitive trauma,” said Danielle Jackson, a psychiatry resident and board member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Caucus of Black Psychiatrists. “Perpetrators of racial violence may have changed uniforms, speech, and coded message, but the message remains the same, ‘you – black person – are other, you are less than.'”
Police kill more than 300 black Americans – at least a quarter unarmed – each year in the U.S., according to a 2018 study in The Lancet, which found these killings have spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans not directly affected.
Research shows black Americans are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic white Americans. In a study on black youth suicide, researchers found suicide attempts rose by 73% between 1991-2017 for black adolescents and listed exposure to racism as a factor.
Roberto Montenegro, an assistant professor in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Washington School of Medicine who studies the biological effects of discrimination, says living in a world where your body is a threat is painful and taxing.
People of color, he said, must engage in extra processing demands to try and assure safety. This leads to states of hypervigilance, arousal and avoidance, which can manifest physically as hypertension and insomnia.
It’s called “racial battle fatigue,” a term used to explain the psychological stress responses – frustration, shock, anger, disappointment, resentment, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, and fear – experienced by people of color in historically white spaces.
Montenegro says he has been frustrated and hurt by repeated racial blows, especially at work.
“I have had nurses, doctors, and other staff tell me that I was intimidating, too assertive, and didn’t smile enough, and that this made them – white women – feel unsafe to approach me,” he said. “They would not say this to a white doctor.”
Video footage shocks. At what cost?
Videos of police brutality fuel outrage and galvanize movements. They also linger, long after the protests quiet.
Some mental health experts argue the explosive footage that accompanies many of these violent deaths are vital to raising public consciousness, even if they are disturbing.
“It powerfully shapes our discourse, much like the images of African American youth in the South who were being sprayed with powerful water hoses and bitten by police dogs when they protested during the Civil Rights Movement,” said Brian Smedley, chief of psychology in the public interest at the American Psychological Association. “As disturbing as these images are, as tragic as it is for individuals who’ve lost their lives, or who have been abused in these circumstances, the reality is that their victimization is not in vain.”
Others worry social media’s amplification is a step too far, treading into gratuity.
Williams says she would rather not see videos like Floyd’s propagated to such a degree. It can be re-traumatizing for people of color, she argues, and in some ways, its viral spread is yet another act of dehumanization.
Your sharing of images of Black people being tortured, murdered, or harmed is part of a centuries old tradition of display of Black pain. & if the display of Black people in pain was enough to end racism, haven’t we at long last seen enough? And if not, why not? 6/
— Izetta Autumn Mobley (@imobley1) May 27, 2020
“These are human beings and they deserve dignity, and the fact that you can just go online and … watch a black person be killed – when is the last time you saw a white person killed online?”
Deaths upon deaths
People of color are witnessing these brutal deaths amid a global pandemic that is hitting African American and Latino communities especially hard. Many front-line jobs are disproportionately held by people of color. Also, people of color are more likely than white adults to report significant stressors in their life as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, including getting coronavirus (71% vs. 59%, respectively), basic needs (61% vs. 47%), and access to health care services (59% vs. 46%), according to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” report published in May.
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“People of color already carry the burden of structural racism in our history and in our bodies,” Montenegro said. “COVID has highlighted how power, privilege, and access to means and resources are distributed disproportionately.”
Arline Geronimus, a professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, uses the term “weathering” to describe the way chronic stressors – which can include interpersonal microaggressions and institutionalized racism – erode bodies. These erosions can lead to chronic conditions among people of color which, Smedley said, make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
No one should have to ‘cope’ with racism. So how do you?
Approximately 30% of African American adults with mental illness get treatment each year, below the U.S. average of 43%, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many African Americans mistrust the health system, and socioeconomic factors can limit access to treatment.
But even mental health professionals recognize there are limits to what the system can do in the face of institutionalized racism. Williams said she’s tired of talking about how to cope.
“So many people of color have to sit on their anger and stuff it down, and we know that that’s taking a horrible physical and emotional toll on our communities,” she said. “The most constructive thing that we can do is take that anger and rage and demand social change. Because going to get your nails done, or taking seven deep breaths, or what have you, that’s not going to be enough.”
Moreland-Capuia is exhausted by the outrage cycle: the performative responses, the social media flurries, the mainstream media, especially. A lot of well-meaning people post about these deaths, she said, but when it’s time to do the work to save black lives, she often feels alone.
“Who is going to be with us to do the real work that’s going to be required to help us adhere to that promise … which is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” she asked. “If we do not treat, manage, and effectively contain the disease of racism, the emotional and psychological toll will not only continue to kill black people, it will consume us all.”
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