Mental health experts on coping with Zimmerman acquittal

theGRIO REPORT - Mental health experts are cautioning against channeling hurtful emotions in a negative or harmful way, and instead encourage the use of healthy coping strategies to deal with Zimmerman’s acquittal...

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George Zimmerman was on trial until Saturday for the February 2012 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. He now walks away a free man.

For Martin’s family, his death is an immeasurable loss. For people across the country, it has become a symbol of the racism many believe still flows deeply through the veins of our country.

Just moments after news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal spread, social media became flooded with emotional statements. An overwhelming number of users expressed disappointment and sadness.

But the case has resonated strongly for minorities, specifically African-Americans.

The verdict’s impact on African-Americans

The verdict has confirmed a collective belief that justice is not attainable for blacks.

“Psychologically it seems to be that a lot of African-Americans, particularly young black males, are scarred by this notion that their lives are not as valuable and that they can be disregarded,” said Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin, president of the New York Association of Black Psychologists. “And so they walk with this fear in essence that they can be targeted either by the police or by vigilantes.”

But mental health experts are cautioning against channeling hurtful emotions in a negative or harmful way, and instead encourage the use of healthy coping strategies to deal with Zimmerman’s acquittal.

“The churches as they have done, grass roots organizations, social service organizations… I think they need to open up a dialogue where we can begin to discuss once again a problem which has been pretty much submerged into the unconscious of America,” said Dr. Jeff Gardere, Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor of Behavioral Medicine at Touro College.

Themes such as the historic, oppressive treatment of African-Americans, the policies such as Jim Crow that codified that treatment, and persistently difficult relationships between the black communities nationwide and law enforcement officials have all come to the surface through this case. This is leading many to make parallels between the outcome of the Zimmerman trial and infamous cases involving unjust sentences that were racially motivated in the past.

Trayvon: Revisiting Emmett Till’s injustice

“A lot of modern commentators have suggested that this is a modern day Emmett Till case,” former judge Bob Pickett, host of the Open Line show on 107.5 WBLS, told theGrio.

Pickett offers his show to audiences as a space for blacks to communally air grievances and seek mutual support related to social issues.

“This is a case in which in 1955 a young 14-year-old black kid from Chicago was killed by a bunch of white folks in Money, Mississippi. And so this is our modern day Emmett Till case,” Pickett said. Like Martin, Till’s killers were found not guilty. Photos and tweets comparing the teens have already been widely circulated online.

Yet, Pickett is optimistic that these perspectives will encourage communities to fight for justice, rather than becoming overwhelmingly discouraged.

“I hope out of this that we will not show our anger in a negative way, but in a positive way, [and] become… more vigilant in protecting our rights, more vigilant in making sure that the larger society does not encroach upon our rights and continue to denigrate us as a people,” said Pickett.

Creating dialogue, working with authorities

Police in Seminole County and elsewhere across Florida had prepared for a year to handle reactions and talks of  riots after the wake of a not-guilty verdict. Some officers had even gone door-to-door talking to people to build better relationships with the community.

Orbe-Austin of the New York Association of Black Psychologists states that there are other ways members of law enforcement can help disappointed communities cope.

“One of the ways that local officials and law enforcement can really send a message is to say that vigilantism is not to be tolerated and that racial profiling is unjust and also not tolerated,” he said.

He also emphasized to theGrio that dealing with the verdict in a healthy way is the responsibility of everyone in his or her community.

“Within the family unit it’s also important to have these types of discussions and to think about ways to protect everyone in the family psychologically and emotionally,” Orbe-Austin said. “On a community level it’s advocating and demanding better treatment from law enforcement and legislators through organizing and civic engagement.”

Coping by building meaningful lives

On a larger level, there must be a sustained effort to ensure that all members of the community are living full, safe lives.

“It’s really being able to through town hall meetings in churches and schools and say what kind of community, what kind of life do we want to have for ourselves and our children? And know that it’s a sustained effort and not just a burst of protests here and there,” the psychologist continued.

Pickett agrees and hopes the Zimmerman trial may encourage marginalized communities that experience violence on a daily basis to be more proactive about stopping it.

He noted that, “Just this past weekend in Chicago, 72 folks were shot. Out of that 72, 12 were murdered. It is an outrage in our community that we don’t become more outraged as a result of the killings that are happening in our communities.”

Moving from apathy to activism

Orbe-Austin is also concerned that Zimmerman’s acquittal may have the opposite effect of reducing activism. “Unfortunately I think there’s a piece of me that believes it will cause people to be even less civically engaged because it will show once again that the system does not serve them, or they will believe that it shows that the system does not serve them,” he worried.

Gardere believes one of the most constructive ways for various communities to move forward from Zimmerman’s acquittal is to recognize that the issues presented in the case stretch far beyond the trial held in Seminole County, Florida. This will require people to look beyond their own pain to a bigger picture, which has meaning and inspires purpose.

“What’s missing out of all of this is there was a young man that was killed. Trayvon Martin is dead. And now how do we turn his death into something that is a catalyst for more progressive thinking addressing injustice and really bringing us all together in America,” said Gardere.

Follow Nia Hamm on Twitter @niaahamm