Can News of Police Violence Cause PTSD in the Black Community?

Recent studies claim that violence in the news can lead to PTSD for viewers, so we asked a psychology professor what kind of psychological harm police brutality may be causing the black community at large.

Tasbeeh Herwees

Photo via Flickr user Stephen Melkisethian

Check out more VICE coverage of the police:

Young, Black, Trans, Arrested: How Women Like Meagan Taylor Are Made Invisible

Why It's Almost Impossible to Reform America's Police

How Eric Garner's Family Is Coping with Their Loss One Year Later

'You're Really Being an Asshole, Officer'

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Ralkina Jones, the conversation surrounding police violence in the US has become more immediate than ever before. Brown, Martin, and Garner's deaths at the hands of police officers have forced many to confront the persistent reality of racism in the United States. The effects of this racism extend beyond direct physical violence; these cases can also have dire implications for the mental health of marginalized communities as well.

Psychological and psychiatric organizations like the APA already recognize that sustained racism and discrimination can be emotionally taxing on minority communities. In recent years, mental health institutions have paid increasing attention to the ways in which the black community internalizes its everyday experiences with racism. Studies have revealed that these experiences actively produce stress and cause trauma for those exposed, which begs the question: Can simply growing up black in America cause permanent psychological harm for an individual? Can the reality of being a person of color cause something as extreme as PTSD?

To get some answers, VICE spoke with Dr. Shawn O. Utsey, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, about the unseen, psychological consequences of being black in America.

VICE: You've written a few papers on race-related and racism-related stress and trauma. Can you tell us a bit about your work?
Dr. Shawn O. Utsey: My work examines the psychological and physiological effects of race-related stress, and that typically includes racism. But there can be race-related stress without racism. There are some things that you might hear people commonly refer to as the "Black tax." It's the cost of being black that may not be the consequence of racism. For example, you move to a community and you have difficulties finding a place to do your hair. That's not necessarily racism, but it could be stressful.

But more often than not, race-related stress involves the impact of racism. Most people tend to think that you have an experience of racism and it upsets you, and as a consequence of you being upset, you experience stress, and that's what makes you sick over the course of your life, that chronic exposure to stress. But my work now is looking at it from a different perspective: prolonged activation. It's not necessarily the fact that you've experienced racism. It's that you've experienced racism and it stays with you.

The other phenomenon that I'm studying now is anticipatory race-related stress. You haven't even had an experience, but you anticipate it happening, and you are stressed just by anticipation. So, I'm about to go shopping at the mall across town, a predominantly white-mall. I anticipate that they're probably going to follow me around. They may even treat me with disdain. So I begin to prepare in anticipation of racism I might or might not encounter. As a consequence, I'm stressed, even in the absence of racism.

So the race-related stress is connected to the overall marginalization of black people in the US, not just individual racist events?
Yes. In fact, I did a study that examines not only the effects of racial trauma but the intergenerational transmission of that trauma. I went to Oklahoma and I interviewed the survivors of the race riots of 1921, and interviewed their descendants. I wanted to see the degree to which people who've encountered racial trauma, not only carry that trauma, but how they pass that trauma on to their descendants across generations. Now there's a lot of empirical work with the descendants of Holocaust survivors and there is some foundation for that thinking. But I think that the argument has been that the trauma has to stop. For black folks, you can't really argue that the trauma has stopped. It's more about the chronic exposure to racism than it is traumatic experiences.

What are the kinds of stress and trauma exhibited by communities that experience instances of police violence?
Typically, you'd think that a sense of helplessness in response to state violence would be more egregious because the actors are immune from prosecution. But in the case of white Americans, who have committed egregious acts of violence against black Americans, we have seen similar outcomes, i.e. no prosecution, or a prosecution that results in no contest, as in the case of George Zimmerman. It's not much of a leap from the helplessness that many black Americans feel about the acts of violence by citizens versus the acts of violence by the police.

It's not simply when the police are violent or the legal system doesn't protect blacks. It's also heavy-handed when black folks are seen as the transgressors. The relationship between the law enforcement and the black community goes back to slavery and the slave patrols. The slave patrols were in place to protect the white community from enslaved black people. In South Africa, during the apartheid, the police and the army were there simply to protect the white community from the black masses of Africans. That's the role of the police in many societies, to protect whites from blacks. This is why the violence is part of our police culture. Slave patrols were one of the first forms of law enforcement in this country.

What kind of psychological symptoms do black people experience as a result of that inherited history and the experience of living in a racist society?
There's this concept of "post-traumatic growth," and that suggests that the response of many people to trauma is growth, not necessarily pathology. Now, in the early history of psychology, the argument was that black people would go insane under the burden of freedom. This is not some racist skinhead—these are the most prominent psychologists of the day, like Carl Jung, saying that black people would go crazy under the burden of freedom. You have people like William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs who wrote about "black rage." In fact, Cobbs and Grier, who were two black psychologists, talked about this rage that was right below the surface of all black people, ready to explode, as a consequence of the chronic exposure to racism.

Now, those people who do experience some psychological pathology as a conduit for racism are probably already at risk for other kinds of stresses. So racism becomes a form of stress. But if you experience stress based on your racial group membership, even when that stressor is over, it's not done for you, because the possibility of future stressors remains. Your skin is still black. I think that you might be at increased risk as a black person, but it doesn't mean that you experience official pathology as a consequence of being black.

There was a study that was released recently from the University of Bradford that talked about how people who are following news events on social media, the study suggested that they were exhibiting symptoms of PTSD. Is it possible that there could be a similar phenomenon within the black community, who are following news about the killings of unarmed black men?
That makes sense, but it's not PTSD. PTSD means something happened, a month ago, a week ago, and you are still exhibiting symptoms. Here's my political opinion: This is the nature of the black experience. There is some degree of healthy behavior that I see exhibited when these events happen. Obviously, you hate to see them happen so frequently. But I'm much happier seeing black folks up in arms about something, trying to get change. Just a few years ago, we were talking about how young people didn't see race, that they thought race was a thing of the past. But now I'm seeing young people becoming activists, leading movements. This is healthy behavior.

Would you say that activism or organizing can be a form of healing for the black community?
Absolutely. For everyone.

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