Content warning: This article mentions the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile and Eric Garner.
As the dual crises of coronavirus and police brutality disproportionately threaten the physical health of Black Americans, rates of anxiety and depression have spiked to historic levels.
According to the Household Pulse Survey launched by the Census Bureau, 41 percent of Black respondents experienced anxiety and/or depression during the week following George Floyd’s murder, up from 36 percent the previous week.
That’s why Simone Leavell-Bruce, who recently completed her doctorate in clinical psychology and now works as a doctoral intern at UNC Charlotte’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), teaches her students about vicarious trauma.
“Maybe you don’t directly experience that thing, that injustice, but you view it,” explained Leavell-Bruce in an interview with the Niner Times.
“One of the places we frequently see vicarious trauma is social media, where people’s deaths happening right in front of your eyes can trigger anything for you,” added Aayla Alexander, a licensed clinical social worker at CAPS.
In fact, as a Black woman herself, Alexander says she hasn’t been on social media in almost two months. “I can’t take seeing the images and videos; they can be triggering, so instead, I keep myself informed by reading news articles and talking to family and friends.”
The effects of vicarious trauma are stronger when you witness an injustice against someone who looks like you.
“White people can turn a blind eye; they can choose to check out. That’s a privilege that we don’t have. Black people are more likely to experience severe psychological distress when they witness these assaults,” added Leavell-Bruce.
Most recently, that “assault” was Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes while Floyd cried for his mother and white vigilantes shooting down Ahmaud Arbery for a minor crime that he didn’t even commit. Before that, it was Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez shooting Philando Castile seven times in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter and New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo holding Eric Garner in a chokehold while Garner pleaded “I can’t breathe” 11 times before dying.
These videos would horrify anyone, but they are especially traumatic for Black audiences. For those who are distressed by these videos, Alexander suggests grounding exercises like counting, deep breathing or engaging the senses by identifying the time, touching a pet or tapping your foot on the ground. You should also reach out to someone, says Alexander, and that could mean contacting the person who posted the video to tell them you are not okay with the violent material they just shared.
Even still, Black folks can’t escape the harmful effects of racism by deleting the Instagram app or setting time limits on their phones. Even when videos of racist assaults aren’t circulating the internet and people aren’t dying by the hundreds of thousands from a pandemic, according to Alexander, one in four Black Americans have some form of anxiety. That’s compared to 18 percent of the general population.
“As a Person of Color, when you’re born into this country, racism is something you have to deal with day in and day out,” said Leavell-Bruce. “We think of trauma as something that happens one time or a couple of times, but racial trauma happens on an ongoing basis. It can be something as subtle as a microaggression or something more blatant. When you have all of these experiences day in and day out it has a weathering effect on your mental health. Folks may experience depression and anxiety with that hypervigilance. It makes it difficult to focus on the things that are in front of us.”
Researchers and counseling professionals might call this racial battle fatigue, perceived discrimination or unspecified trauma and stressor-related disorder. All can cause PTSD-like symptoms: depression, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and a whole laundry list of physical ailments including back pain, stomach pain and headaches.
Alexander says this is in part due to centuries of racism. “There’s a historical context we need to talk about. Trauma can be passed on from generation to generation, which in turn can affect many things, including the way in which we perceive safety,” she says.
“I never experienced the blatant racism that my great grandparents did,” added Leavell-Bruce. “But I have learned from them. Children begin to recognize racial differences around age three. My son is four-years-old and he is already soaking in conversations I have with others about racial injustice, and as his parent, I am unaware of the impact it is having on him.”
“Growing up I would try to limit my time outside to make sure that I didn’t get too dark,” echoed Alexander. “From a young age, I perceived that my treatment would be better with lighter skin color.”
What’s more, Alexander says, “From a historical perspective, events such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiences have caused many African Americans to distrust many systems, including healthcare. Mental health can also be categorized under that, as we learned the importance of keeping things to yourself or at home for the safety of yourself and your family. For a lot of People of Color, it’s extremely hard to engage in therapy.”
Leavell-Bruce adds “People of Color have a healthy paranoia related to health fields. As professionals, it’s our job to destigmatize. At CAPS we do a good job trying to reach the students.”
For those who are seeking support, check out CAPS’ social media pages (@uncccaps on Instagram and Twitter) to hear more from professionals like Alexander and Leavell-Bruce. CAPS hosts “Healing and Empowerment Gatherings,” originally developed by Dr. Jarice Carr, to help students cope after oppression-based traumatic events. The two CAPS employees also recommend leaning on your community, practicing self care and finding comfort in empowering Black voices.
You can also hear more from Leavell-Bruce by listening to her Podcast, #thesecoronatimes on Youtube.
And for the non-Black people who want to be allies, while it is important to check in on your Black friends, Alexander cautions people to be wary of overloading them.
“It’s still sort of a burden,” said Alexander. “White people communicate with us to check in and we wind up taking care of them.”
In lieu of asking Black friends and colleagues how you can help, Leavell-Bruce suggests you self-educate from anti-racist resources online.
“There are so many resources, but white people need to talk to each other about how they’re going to deal with this,” added Alexander.
“If you consider me a friend, this is the time to stand up in your workplace if you notice there are injustices,” she continued. “If there aren’t many People of Color on your staff, talk to your boss. Go to protests to learn. Educate others. You can't do better if you don’t know better.”