The Effects of Racial Trauma on Mental Health: Deaths Captured on TV and Media

Racial tension is once again at a critical tipping point in the U.S. Many people have asked, “Why now? Why was the death of George Floyd the catalyst for this national reckoning on racial injustice?”

The truth is: this movement is over 500 years in the making. Only now, with the widespread use of videos captured on cell phones and posts on social media, has the awareness of injustices outside of those happening within our own neighborhoods become too prevalent to ignore.

While this has allowed for a collective response and an awareness that these are not isolated events, it has also served to re-traumatize people who witness the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police. This serves to fuel hypervigilance and mistrust of a system that vows to protect and serve.

What is Racial Trauma?

The number of instances of overt disenfranchisement toward the Black community are countless. During slavery, a psychiatric condition was developed to describe slaves who attempted to flee enslavement, which was referred to as “Drapetomania.” Also, during slavery, Black men were considered only to be 3/5 of a man. Between 1932-1972, the U.S. Public Health Services enrolled Black men into the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which was disguised as providing treatment for Black men with syphilis. Instead, participants were prescribed vitamins or administered insufficient doses of medications that resulted in a number of unnecessary deaths. These instances — among many other atrocities — have resulted in significant, ongoing trauma to Black people within our country.

Despite being currently five to six generations removed from slavery, the trauma of enslavement was so severe that it implanted a psychological and social shock in the minds of Black people. Current generations still carry the scars mentally and socially. In addition to knowing that this is the history of Black people in America, the systemic racism that has remained in place since the end of slavery has resulted in ongoing racial trauma and injustices to Black people, such as racial profiling, voter suppression and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. Enduring constant prejudice, discrimination and bias takes a toll on one’s mental health.

Recurring Trauma through the Media

These psychologically damaging experiences of ongoing systemic racism are further exacerbated through the reoccurring videos and images of Black people dying at the hands of police officers. The number of lives lost don’t just include Michael Brown (age 18), Freddie Gray (age 25), Tamir Rice (age 12), Eric Garner (age 27), Ahmaud Arbery (age 25), Atatiana Jefferson (age 28), Breonna Taylor (age 26), Elijah McClain (age 23) or George Floyd (age 46). They include so many more.

There is a collective experience that is felt. It is every Black person realizing that at any point in time, the stories that have become all too familiar could be their story. It is realizing that people in the Black community are dying unnecessarily.

Unfortunately, Black people have always lived with the fear and worry that at any point in time either themselves or one of their family members could be the victim of a negative interaction with law enforcement. Recent events that have been highlighted in the news are not just isolated incidents, but rather a reflection of how this country has continued to undervalue the lives of Black people.

The complexities associated with the re-traumatization of Black people, and the broadened awareness of social and racial injustices, have ballooned to create a societal awakening. However, becoming mentally overwhelmed and susceptible to extended trauma or other mental health issues related to this continued exposure is prevalent as well.

As the struggle for equality continues, it is critically important for Black people to carefully consider the effect of these repeated images and videos on their mental health. For those who feel repeatedly triggered, it can be helpful to mitigate exposure as much as possible by unfollowing accounts that post these videos and images or setting content blocks and limits on your phone. Additionally, reach out to family and friends if you feel overwhelmed and need to talk to someone you trust who understands. And lastly, if your mental health is suffering, it is essential to consider seeking culturally competent mental health care.

Resources

Black Mental Health Alliance
Develops, promotes and sponsors culturally-relevant educational forums, trainings and referral services that support the health and well-being of Black people and vulnerable communities.

Black Mental Wellness
Provides access to evidence-based information and resources about mental health and behavioral health topics from a Black perspective.

Brother You’re on My Mind
Raises awareness of the mental health challenges associated with depression and stress that affect African American men and their families.

Hurdle
Provides culturally intentional care and tailored content built on evidence-based practices.