The insidious impact of police violence on Black mental health
Opinion: Black Americans reported an increase in "poor mental health days" during weeks where more than one deadly racial incident was in the news
The constant media coverage and real-time dissemination of footage on social media of unarmed African Americans harmed or killed by the police has left many Americans, especially Black and Brown folks, struggling to make sense of the violence.
This week Black and Brown communities around the nation expressed a collective sigh of relief after a grand jury found disgraced police officer, Derek Chauvin, guilty of murdering George Floyd. The conviction was met with mixed feelings; while many celebrated the decision, others pointed out the collective stress felt by Black and Brown communities, citing the uncertainty of justice and accountability when Black victims are involved.
Marginalized communities bear the weight of high-profile cases, making them more prone to stress-related diseases. A recent study published April 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that on average, Black Americans reported an increase in “poor mental health days” during weeks where more than one deadly racial incident was in the news.
These incidents often included hate crimes, police killings of Black individuals, or legal decisions to either not indict or not convict an officer involved. In contrast, the study found no change in white Americans’ mental health ratings during those weeks, highlighting the disproportionate and far reaching impacts of preventable Black death. In Black and Brown communities when one life is lost, the entire community suffers.
The harm of police violence on the nation’s collective mental health is further elevated by the remarkable stress people have had to endure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what are we to do? Some mental health professionals suggest that we take social media and news television breaks to distance ourselves from anxiety-inducing images. While this may have some acute value, this coping mechanism is far from a long-term fix. A more permanent solution would be to reevaluate and transform our racist systems into more equitable and antiracist ones, but that requires tackling race-related issues head on, a method our conservative political establishments have been reluctant to do.
Finding a balance between distance from and occasional consumption of stressful media is central to preserving Black mental health. The trick is to be mindful of what you’re feeling, for how long, and when you’ve reached our limit. If you feel like police violence is getting worse, it’s because it is, and the barrage of media images serves as a daily reminder. Video recordings and nationwide protests have not dampened police misconduct.
New images of police misconduct push aside old ones, making it impossible to unpack both. This leaves us reconciling the realities of our nation’s worsening race problem far too often. While our collective tolerance of injustice has dwindled, the damage to our mental and emotional health continues. U.S. anxiety, depression and substance abuse rates are at an all time high, with the worst rates felt by Black, Latino, Native American, and sexual and gender minority communities.
The baseline of stress experienced by Black and Brown Americans is also higher than other groups in this country. Chronic stress is associated with higher risk of developing diabetes, hypertension, and weight gain, the impacts of which are often not felt until later on in life. This is why it is imperative to preserve your mental and emotional health now. Take breaks. Go on vacation. Meditate. And create a dope home life that rivals your work life.
Living a balanced life is more important for Black Americans than any other group. Depression and mood disorder diagnoses are going up. Black communities also experience higher rates of chronic disease, which can be explained in part by higher baseline stress levels as a symptom of systemic racism. To be Black in America is to live in a constant state of hyperawareness, keenly aware that perception and mortality are adjacent to one’s current existence.
In essence, being Black in America is a 24/7 job. It means being constantly aware of how you speak, react, and conduct yourself in public. It means smiling and code switching to disarm situations and paying a negro-tax when issues of diversity and inclusion arise.
Understanding the history of our chronic stress is the first step toward creating a path forward. The roots of conformity were sowed when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws in public facilities as long as these segregated facilities were supposedly equal in quality, the idea known as ”separate but equal,” in the infamous Plessy vs Ferguson case.
This cemented into U.S. law the segregation of people of color from not just public spaces and accommodations but much more importantly, from opportunities that became exclusively for whites. Since this monumental case, Black people have had to navigate structural barriers in our chase of the American Dream. For generations the denial of basic rights to work, own land, vote, and obtain a quality education has made the pursuit of the American Dream an American nightmare.
Slavery and segratation also meant meaningful interactions between White and non-white people were few and far between sparking a sort of racial xenophobia that is still felt today. The fear of Black men and women is seen most clearly in the interactions between law enforcement and marginalized communities. At the first sign of stress trained officers abandon de-escalation tactics which often leads to harm or even death. Resorting to a shoot first and ask questions later mentality doesn’t just devalue Black life, but it highlights the unwillingness to engage in communication, period.
It is clear that the impact of generational trauma is insidious and affects all of us. We can choose to address its root causes or continue to take a break from addressing the real issues. Freedom will only be achieved through equality. While this hope may not be imminent, we can begin to take steps toward it by increasing our financial literacy, circulating wealth within Black communities, creating art, reading, exercising, eating healthy, and seeing the world.
Success in America has been largely predicated on conformity which means fitting into white spaces at your own expense. We must resist this temptation. Catering to the needs of everyone but ourselves has contributed to the slow deterioration of our mental health over time. It has led to a sense of languishing and emotional stagnation. It’s time that we put our mental and emotional health first by focusing on interventions that hit the root of the problem, and those solutions require that you take time for yourself.
My friend Dr. Brian Dixon, a leading Black psychiatrist in Dallas, Texas, often recites the phrase “trauma begets trauma begets trauma.” It’s a fitting reminder that trauma doesn’t just go away; we have to actively unpack and deconstruct its impact on our lives. In order to do so we must start looking inwards. No matter the case, protect your mental health at all costs.
Dr. Shamard Charles is an assistant professor of public health and health promotion at St. Francis College and sits on the anti-bias review board of Dot Dash/VeryWell Health. He is also host of the health podcast, Heart Over Hype. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC.
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