Racism and Mental Health (Double Participation)

Written by Stacey Patton

Hello, my name is Stacey, and I am addicted to Facebook. Yet, unlike the GOP’s addiction to stupid, mine isn’t a problem.

I relish the give-and-take of social media; I enjoy sharing posts each day with my nearly 11,000 super-smart, highly opinionated, and irreverent friends and followers. I subsist on their brilliance and passion and I thrive in this community.

For me, as for many others, the digital space has become a portal where we share and respond to news we can use, and launch our opinions, emotions, and reactions in real time. And this is a powerful thing.

Facebook is where I get news I don’t find elsewhere, engage in lively discussions about pop culture, public health issues, history, and silly stuff. It is also the place I have turned to during times of racial turmoil to express my rage and to connect with others to process and grieve after the killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, the Charleston 9, and so many others.

Social media is also like CNN (circa 1985), MTV (circa 1998), and tabloids all wrapped into one. I am able to know what is happening in the world, as it provides the latest sports and entertainment news; and all things Kardashian (insert eye roll here) without turning the channel.

Facebook allows for endless connections that engender innumerable possibilities with each virtual encounter.

So what’s the problem?

While there is no break from racism, social media can also be a portal to racism on fleek. Besides the racism, sexism, and dehumanizing violence that are ubiquitous in practically every virtual space, social media provides a never ending loop for the realities of racism. While I can turn off the television, put down the newspaper, and avoid certain channels, I don’t have the same power with social media.

I have yet to figure out a balance between consuming, sharing, and dissecting the endless cycle of Black Death and not further traumatizing myself or my followers.

This is not easy. A recent study from the University of Bradford in England found that viewing negative news on social media may cause some of us to experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Social media has enabled violent stories and graphic images to be watched by the public in unedited horrific detail,” said Pam Ramsden from the Faculty of Social Sciences at University of Bradford. “Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those directly experiencing them may impact on our daily lives.” In their research, Ramdsen and others found that 22 percent of participants scored high on clinical measures of PTSD after viewing such events as 9/11 and recent school shootings, though none of them had previous trauma and experienced the events ONLY on social media. The people who viewed the events more often were most affected.

Jay Ulfelder offered similar feelings on his blog, when in a post entitled: ‘What Are All These Violent Images Doing to Us?’

“Because I study political violence and atrocities, a fair share of my feed deals with potentially disturbing material. Where that material used to arrive only as text, it increasingly includes photos and video clips of violent or brutal acts as well. I am starting to wonder how routine exposure to those images may be affecting my mental health.” He cites a study that connects daily exposure to violent images with higher scores related to psychological distress and depression in journalists.

Not surprisingly, this research does little to consider race, particularly the cumulative aspects of racism in our lives. We don’t arrive in social media with a blank slate but a U-Haul of experiences of prejudice, microaggressions, systemic racism, and violence. The trigger impact of yet another instance of trauma increases exponentially in the virtual universe.

This is why I’ve recently had to ask folks to stop tagging me on videos and stories about Black people being brutalized and killed by the police or unjustly arrested. It’s simply too much to take in all the time. I cannot even scroll through my timeline to relish in my friends’ accomplishments or smile at yet another photo of a cute child or a dog video without coming face-to-face with anti-Black racism. Odds are I will witness some historic images of half-naked Black bodies hanging from trees, bridges, and light poles and charred with messages like “Lest We Forget.” Never mind the pictures of Trayvon, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride, and so many others.  Viewing these images has costs and consequences for not just one’s emotions for that day but for the future in terms of transforming the health and possibilities of ever living free.

The videos are even more disturbing. They make me cry. They make feel powerless.  Tired. Heavy. Hopeless. Numb. Paranoid. I go through each day feeling like I, or somebody I know, could be next. When I venture out into the public I feel like an everyday moment can turn into an assault, an unjustified arrest, or worse my death. After watching so many videos of Black women being punched, slammed, and tasered, my heart speeds up and I cross the street when I see police officers. These reactions are all symptoms of trauma fatigue and PTSD. People don’t realize that when they keep sharing this stuff they are re-traumatizing or spreading the trauma.

The cost of the endless exposure to the brutality of racism is not abstract but is yet another way that racism kills. Study after study continues to highlight the impact that stress has on physical health and our neurobiological response system. This science says that social media can activate the stress response and impact our immune system, and resistance or susceptibility to disease. The accumulated images and stress memories get encoded in our bodies in unhealthy ways. And the parts of our brains that control our responses to stress impact whether we are susceptible or resistant to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, heart disease, and depression.

A piece in the The Atlantic entitled “How Racism is Bad for Our Bodies,” highlights how not only experiencing discrimination—but anticipating it—impacts the physical and emotional health of Black people. “Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common coldhypertensioncardiovascular diseasebreast cancer, and death. Two journals—The American Journal of Public Health and The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race—dedicated entire issues to the subject … Racial discrimination puts black Americans at risk for long-term health problems … The psychological toll that racism takes on adults has also been well-documented, and racial discrimination has been repeatedly linked to high blood pressure. Just the fear of racial discrimination can trigger stress-related responses, which means that many people of color who live within a society defined by racism are constantly under increased biological stressors.”

African-Americans experiencing racism has been associated with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Similarly, a study among Latino youth found that racist experiences were associated with higher cortisol levels throughout the day. Cortisol and other hormones in the stress physiology system are important for maintaining immune, reproductive, and cardiovascular health. Therefore changes in this system as a result of experiences of discrimination can adversely affect everything from your body’s ability to fight infection to your ability to become pregnant.

It is increasingly accepted that a woman’s mental and physical health in pregnancy influences her baby. Maternal health may influence offspring through exposure to hormones in pregnancy. For example, women with high stress hormones give birth to infants with lower birth weight. Imagine the impact of endless pieces about the killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and others on a pregnant black mother who is already anxious about bringing a Black child into this cruel sneering world.

Knowing the emotional impact of social media on myself, and the potentially deadly impact of the social media loop of racism, I decided I needed help. I reached out to Erika Totten, a community organizer, co-founder of Black Lives Matter DMV and spiritual life coach who works in the name of Black liberation, to provide tips on how we can consume this social media material and stay healthy.

Totten’s organization Unchained works to support the collective healing and liberation of all Black people through identifying and unlocking the mental, emotional and spiritual chains that hold us back.  She also leads emotional emancipation circles which focuses on breaking the chains of internalized white supremacy, self-hatred, anger, perfectionism, feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy, generational pathologies, self-limiting beliefs, fear, rejection, abandonment, denial, shame, guilt, and judgment. Guided by the principle of self-determination, Totten teaches the importance of taking the time to heal, learning and practicing essential emotional wellness skills, and intentionally detoxifying our minds and spirits by replacing the lies we’ve been fed with our collective truths.

“Images and videos of Black death and brutalization are the only ones played on a loop by mainstream media and it’s a tactic of psychological warfare,” she says. “This system wants us so paralyzed by our fear, our pain, and our anxiety that we’re literally incapable of fighting against our own oppression.”

Here are Erika’s tips for those of us who suffer from too much exposure to violence against Black people:

·      It is important to check your mental, emotional, and spiritual capacity before consuming these images.

·      It’s important to consistently acknowledge and process the racial trauma we’re experiencing every day, simply by being a Black person living within a system of White supremacy. In doing so, we’re able to identify what needs to be healed and reclaim our collective power.

She also pointed me to some tips from the Association of Black Psychologists:

·      Limit your exposure to the incident. Do not watch or read news coverage or click on these videos just before bed. Take a complete break if the coverage is making you feel overwhelmed.

·      Information gathering is healthy, but try to avoid morbid preoccupation with distressing images and video clips.

·      Protect your children from seeing or hearing unnecessary reminders of the traumatic event.

·      After viewing coverage of racial tragedies, talk with your loved ones about the coverage or footage and what you are feeling.

For the sake of balance for myself, and my social media community, I have begun to embrace Totten’s advice. We’re never going to be able to live apart from the horrors of racism, but we must be more conscious of how posting, sharing and commentating can so easily cross the line from being simply informative and empowering to inadvertently harming our well-being. And White allies and accomplices, be aware of the potential here; every moment does not need to be a moment to show your radical credentials; just say no to tagging and performing anti-racism because your empowerment should not come through yet again disregarding the well-being of the already victimized Black community.

Change is gonna come. While you probably won’t see me announce that I’m filling my feed with cartoon super-heroes and cat videos to provide an alternative to the non-stop horror show that social media can so easily become, I am working curate a space of joy, pleasure, and freedom from the racist violence that is America.

We need to be healthy, balanced and rested, for there are many battles to fight, many challenges to overcome, many miles ahead in our quest for true progress and equality. We need our brains to be right, and our immune systems to be strong. I don’t know the magic formula. As with so much of our struggle, the promise land is out there. I’ll keep trying to find it—for myself, and for you. Because we’re worth fighting for.



Demonstrators at a march in Charleston, S.C., on June 21. CreditDavid Goldman/Associated Press 

Our screens and feeds are filled with news and images of black Americans dying or being brutalized. A brief and yet still-too-long list: Trayvon MartinTamir RiceWalter ScottEric GarnerRenisha McBride. The image of a white police officer straddling a black teenager on a lawn in McKinney, Tex., had barely faded before we were forced to grapple with the racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C.

I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues who are stressed out by the recent string of events; our anxiety and fear is palpable. A few days ago, a friend sent a text message that read, “I’m honestly terrified this will happen to us or someone we know.” Twitter and Facebook are teeming with anguish, and within my own social network (which admittedly consists largely of writers, academics and activists), I’ve seen several ad hoc databases of clinics and counselors crop up to help those struggling to cope. Instagram and Twitter have become a means to circulate information about yoga, meditation and holistic treatment services for African-Americans worn down by the barrage of reports about black deaths and police brutality, and I’ve been invited to several small gatherings dedicated to discussing these events. A handful of friends recently took off for Morocco for a few months with the explicit goal of escaping the psychic weight of life in America.

It was against this backdrop that I first encountered the research of Monnica Williams, a psychologist, professor and the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities. Several years ago, Williams treated a “high-functioning patient, with two master’s degrees and a job at a company that anyone would recognize.” The woman, who was African-American, had been devastated by racial harassment by a director within her company. Williams recalls being stunned by how drastically her patient’s condition deteriorated as a result of the treatment. “She completely withdrew and was suffering from extreme emotional anxiety,” she told me. “And that’s what made me say, ‘Wow, we have to focus on this.’ ”

In a 2013 Psychology Today article, Williams wrote that “much research has been conducted on the social, economic and political effects of racism, but little research recognizes the psychological effects of racism on people of color.” Williams now studies the link between racism and post-traumatic stress disorder, which is known as race-based traumatic stress injury, or the emotional distress a person may feel after encountering racial harassment or hostility. Although much of Williams’s work focuses on individuals who have been directly targeted by racial discrimination or aggression, she says race-based stress reactions can be triggered by events that are experienced vicariously, or externally, through a third party — like social media or national news events. She argues that racism should be included as a cause of PTSD in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.).

Williams is in the process of opening a clinical program that will exclusively treat race-based stress and trauma, in a predominantly black neighborhood in Louisville. Shortly after the Charleston shooting, I called Williams to discuss her work; what follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

What is race-based stress and trauma? 

It’s a natural byproduct of the types of experiences that minorities have to deal with on a regular basis. I would argue that it is pathological, which means it is a disorder that we can assess and treat. To me, that means these are symptoms that are a diagnosable disorder that require a clinical intervention. It goes largely unrecognized in most people, and that’s based on my experience as a clinician.

What are the symptoms?

Depression, intrusion (the inability to get the thoughts about what happened out of one’s mind), vigilance (an inability to sleep, out of fear of danger), anger, loss of appetite, apathy and avoidance symptoms and emotional numbing. My training and study has been on post-traumatic stress disorder for a long time, and the two look very much alike.

Over the weekend, I received several distressing emails and texts from friends who were suffering from feelings of anxiety and depression. Do you think we should all be in treatment?

I think everyone could benefit from psychotherapy, but I think just talking to someone and processing the feelings can be very effective. It doesn’t have to be with a therapist; it could be with a pastor, family, friends and people who understand it and aren’t going to make it worse by telling you to stop complaining.

What do you think about the #selfcare hashtags on social media and the role of “Black Twitter” as resources for people who may not have the resources they need to help process this? Are online interactions like that more meaningful than they initially might seem?

Online communities can be a great source of support, of course — with the caveat that even just one hater can be stressful for everyone, and that’s the danger of it. But if you don’t have a friend or a family member, just find someone who is sensitive and understanding and can deal with racial issues.

In our initial email about the ripple effects of the murders in Charleston, you used the phrase “vicarious trauma.” What does that mean?

Because the African-American community has such a long history of pervasive discrimination, something that impacts someone many miles away can sometimes impact all of us. That’s what I mean by vicarious traumatization.

Is racial trauma widely recognized as a legitimate disorder?

The trauma of events like this is not formally recognized in the D.S.M. It talks about different types of trauma and stress-related ailments, but it doesn’t say that race trauma can be a factor or a trigger for these problems. Psychiatrists, unless they’ve had some training or personal experience with this, are not going to know to look for it and aren’t going to understand it when they see it. In order for it to be recognized, we have to get a good body of scientific research, a lot of publications in reputable peer-reviewed journals. Right now, there’s only been a few. And we need to produce more.

On your blog, you chronicled the experience of a woman who encounters a therapist who dismisses her fears about racism. Is one barrier to treatment getting the medical community to acknowledge that racism exists?

Yes. A lot of people in the medical community live very privileged lives, so racism isn’t a reality to them. When someone comes in and talks to them, it might sound like a fairy tale, rather than a real daily struggle that people are dealing with. Research shows that African-Americans, for example, are optimistic when they start therapy, but within a few sessions feel less optimistic and have high early dropout rates. It could be that clinicians don’t know how to address their problems, or they may even be saying things that are subtly racist that may drive their clients away. If the patient feels misunderstood or even insulted by the therapist and they don’t go back and get help, they end up suffering for years or even the rest of their lives for something that is very treatable.

Is there a recommended model for treatment?

We have great treatments that are empirically supported for trauma, but the racial piece hasn’t really been studied very well. That’s no easy task, because when we write these articles, they go to journals, where an editor looks at it and decides if it’s worthy and applicable to go in the journal. And then it goes to reviewers who decide if it’s a worthy and applicable topic.

Why has it taken so long to get momentum? 

If you think about it, they weren’t even letting black people get Ph.D.s 30 years ago in a lot of places. Ethnic minority researchers are the ones who are carrying the torch, by and large. We’re only to the place now where we have enough researchers to do the work. And there’s so much work that needs to be done.


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