science of us

‘It Can Be Hard to Concentrate or Focus on Something Else’

Photo: Johnce/Getty Images

After George Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, as three other police officers looked on, images and videos circulated via news and social media. Weeks earlier, video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing [content warning: the linked post contains descriptions of graphic violence] went public, prompting the long-overdue arrest of the two white men who killed him. On social media, Black people expressed frustration that it took this graphic, viral video — shared widely by white people — to get justice. Both deaths reignited debate over the dissemination of images and videos depicting dead Black people, and the trauma they inflict on Black people who see them.

The experience of routinely witnessing Black murders in the media has been likened to PTSD, or a kind of “secondary” trauma. Data confirm what Black people have long known to be true: Police are much more likely to use excessive force against them than white people. Absorbing the endless evidence of this violence adds another layer of trauma for Black people, particularly when each news cycle ends and nothing changes.

Here, Black psychologists and health experts explain how racial and secondary trauma work, how that trauma impacts the body and brain, and what Black people experiencing this trauma yet again can do to take care of themselves.

Monnica Williams, associate professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa and editor of Eliminating Race-Based Mental Health Disparities
There are all sorts of things covered in the media like tragic car accidents and plane crashes, but we don’t see the dismembered, mutilated bodies because we’ve decided that’s not appropriate to show. But for some reason, we’re going to show a dead Black person lying on the ground? Maybe that’s not appropriate either. It’s traumatizing to see dead bodies. Nobody shows dead white bodies, so why is it okay to show a dead Black body?

We need more discretion in terms of how we show and disseminate these images. It can be traumatizing to see images of violence done to other people. Just seeing these images often enough can cause trauma. I think a lot of people of color are feeling genuinely traumatized from living in a society that is riddled with racism, and these reminders of the trauma are triggering, and compound the existing trauma further.

As a mental-health professional, I’d say it can be very helpful to talk to a supportive person, whether that’s a therapist or someone in your life who’s a really good listener, and who won’t be judgmental or tell you what to do, but will just be there. Take some time to step away from social media — you don’t have to watch the video, you don’t have to look at the pictures over and over again. There’s a lot of healing to be found through advocacy and activism — making meaning out of something bad that happened. Making George Floyd’s life stand for something and bringing about change in your community and workplace or school can be a good way to harness a lot of that energy that you don’t know what to do with.

Jamie Freeny, director of the Center for School Behavioral Health at Mental Health America of Greater Houston
A person that has secondary trauma may feel — and this is something I myself have felt — a sense of hopelessness. You can be angry, you can feel defeated, and those feelings can be so strong that they’re debilitating. They can impede how you would normally function on a day-to-day basis. Trauma impacts every function of the body. People might have headaches, stomachaches, or feel like their heart is racing. Then, of course, being cynical and sarcastic and angry, which go along with the hopelessness. It can be hard to concentrate or focus on something else.

These protests are an example of a manifestation of compound trauma. While over the last five or six years, in response to the violent acts against Black men and women, there would be protests, they’d occur for just one or two days. Now, the protests aren’t stopping. People are tired of going through the same thing over and over again and nothing being done.

The main thing that helps is contributing in a meaningful way. One of the main ways would be to join in the protests, or finding out what policies and practices need to change and calling elected officials to share your thoughts on that. You can be the person at your organization who speaks up and says, “We’re not okay. Can you offer us space for a town hall, or would you be open to allowing people to share their ideas about how we can support these efforts?” Contributing in a way that has some action behind it will help people start to move forward.

Engaging in healthy practices helps reduce stress overall, in general — we can eat healthy, walk every day, and that will lend itself to the healing process. But it’s like somebody telling me, “I know this is a difficult time for you, you should try to go to bed at 8.” It’s dismissive. I’d be mindful of the more common advice people give. One thing I would caution against is people isolating themselves, which is very contrary to the time we’re in, given the pandemic, but finding ways to connect virtually with people and the community is healing.”

Allen E. Lipscomb, clinical psychologist and author of Black Male Grief Reaction to Trauma: A Clinical Case Study of One Man’s Mental Health Treatment
Each time this happens, a piece of me dies inside, because I recognize that that is me. That is my son; that is my family. There is something to be said about the impact it has on mind, body, and spirit, when this continues to happen and there’s no justice being done.

When the DSM-V [the diagnostic manual that mental-health professionals use to diagnose disorders] talks about PTSD, it does not account for secondary exposure unless it’s part of your job. So if I’m collecting human remains because I’m doing forensics, or I’m a nurse or doctor working with COVID-19 patients and they die, I can get PTSD from that. But the DSM-V doesn’t account for if I see something on TV or social media or if I read it in an article. My research looks at the psychiatric epidemiology among racialized Black men, and how this particular type of trauma is cultivated, how it’s expressed, and the psychological and emotional impact that it has on Black men. I wanted to capture the psychological responses of Black men exposed to these violent acts on Black males, and how that impacts how they move through their day-to-day lives. That’s the research I did that resulted in the article I published last year, about the secondary impact of police trauma on the Black man’s psyche.

Because there’s no space to understand and recognize what Black male grief and traumatic grief looks like, it gets pathologized as anger, or acting out. It’s irrational. It’s not recognized that those reactions and symptoms are understood as a trauma response, and could be PTSD.

The way Black people respond to these murders is their trauma reaction. Acknowledge the feelings you feel. Accept all feelings that come with this type of injustice, this type of exposure. What we know about grief and loss in literature is that grieving happens when one can allow oneself to accept all feelings that come with grief and loss — denial, anger, acceptance, bargaining, depression, the Kübler-Ross model. They don’t have to go in order. One of the things that becomes important is people allowing themselves to feel angry, and sad, and to want to do something.

Interviews by Katie Heaney.

These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed.

‘It Can Be Hard to Concentrate or Focus on Something Else’