Frequent Exposure to Shootings of Black People Can Cause PTSD-Like Trauma, Research Says

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Photo Credit: Dreamstime
Photo Credit: Dreamstime

Graphic footage of Terence Crutcher’s final moments have been on a constant loop since his ill-fated encounter with police, playing over and over again as Americans struggle to digest what they just witnessed.

Images of Crutcher’s bloodied body lying in the middle of an Oklahoma road immediately populated social media, sparking outrage from many wondering why the police would shoot a Black man who clearly had his hands up?

Disturbing video of police shooting Black civilians are simply hard to escape once they go viral. That’s been the case for most of the recent police shootings caught on tape.

For instance, video of the Baton Rouge shooting death of Alton Sterling nearly broke the internet; the girlfriend of Minnesota man Philando Castile live streamed the bloody aftermath of his shooting death on Facebook for the whole world to see; and outrage peaked when video captured a Miami police officer shooting Charles Kinsey, an unarmed behavioral therapist, as he lay in the road with his hands in the air.

With so many images of violence and death permeating the social media space, some people find it necessary to unplug for a while. Mental health experts think that’s not such a bad idea. According to recent research, frequent exposure to videos and images of Black people being shot and killed can have ill, long-lasting effects on Black mental health.

Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, said that these graphic images, coupled with lived experiences of racism, can lead to severe mental health issues and PTSD-like trauma.

“There’s a heightened sense of fear and anxiety when you feel like you can’t trust the people who’ve been put in charge to keep you safe,” Williams said. “Instead, you see them killing people who look like you. Combined with the everyday instances of racism, like microaggressions and discrimination, that contributes to a sense of alienation and isolation. It’s race-based trauma.”

A 2012 study on racial discrimination and psychopathology by researchers Chao, Asnaani and Hofmann found that African-Americans experienced more racism than both Asian and Latino Americans. Furthermore, African-Americans who experienced significantly higher rates of racism were also more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD.

It’s not uncommon for Black Americans to speak on their racism-related experiences, whether they be subtle microagressions or flat out acts of discrimination. Over time, these experiences, depending on their frequency, make it hard for victims to “mentally manage the sheer volume of racial stressors,” thus leading to trauma, Psychology Today reports.

Though it’s important to be socially “woke” in today’s political climate, it’s also clear to see how constant videos depicting violence against Black bodies does more harm than good.

“We’re witnessing mentally and emotionally traumatizing videos and pictures,” April Reign, managing editor for Broadway Black, told PBS NewsHour. “It’s enough, it’s just enough. It’s just so overwhelming all the time. There are people who are having trouble sleeping, who are having trouble eating. There are people who are having those symptoms of PTSD in the truest sense.”

Reign agreed that sometimes those hard-to-watch videos are needed to bring light to certain social issues, but she pointed out that decisions to censor graphic footage is driven by implicit racial bias. She cited the August 25, 2015 incident where two white North Carolina news anchors were murdered on national TV by a former co-worker. When other news stations covered the story, they “selectively censored” portions of the footage out of respect for the victims’ families. That same respect and consideration wasn’t given to Sterling, Castile or other Black Americans whose final moments were played out over and over again.

“It is a dehumanization of Black people, and we don’t see that with any other race. It’s ingrained in us from our history,” Reign said. “White people used to have picnics at hangings and at lynchings, bringing their children to watch Black bodies suffer and die. We are not far removed from that, it’s just being played out through technology now. And it hurts.”

The overwhelming emotional impact of watching Blacks die at the hands of police has taken a toll on everyone, from the average Black citizen to the BLM activist on the front lines. Williams said the first step in reducing this stress is to acknowledge that racism and public murders of minorities is affecting you.

“Recognize that if you’re numb, that means something,” she explained. “If you’re breaking down in tears, that means something. “It affects you more than you know, and there is nothing wrong with saying that this pains you. Understand it, and actively move toward healing yourself.”

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