We now live in an era where just about everything is available to us at the click of a button. And becoming more popular is getting your daily dose of news right on your laptop or smart phone. Even the outlets that the masses use to acquire their news have evolved.
TMZ (Thirty Mile Zone) which seemingly began as a “celebrity sighting” website, now breaks legitimate news stories. Civilians can even upload photos and live videos to their Facebooks, Twitters and the behemoth that is YouTube without permission, without editing, without bias. Most striking, content producers can publicize this imagery without any responsibility to the mental and psychological impact it may have on the viewing public.
Over the past few years, the physical abuse and state-sanctioned murder of African-American men and women at the hands of law enforcement officers have become increasingly popular viewing on the news circuit. The impetus may be traced back to Oscar Grant, the young Black man who was fatally shot in the back by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle while he lay face down and handcuffed on an Oakland train station platform in 2009. The incident was captured on numerous cell phone video cameras, was publicized, and went viral almost instantaneously. Millions of people watched, rewatched and shared this video of an unarmed Black man being killed in cold blood. It got so much attention that a major motion picture “Fruitvale Station” was created to memorialize the event.
In the years since Grant’s murder, unfortunately, the trend of using video of such incidents has only continued, and more of the bystanding public has gotten involved by consistently being camera-ready when they see police encounters. This brings us to an increase in the number of videotaped killings that have dominated cyber space—and as a result the increasing amount of national news coverage—in the last year and a half.
Some of the most brutal of these incidents have happened this year, specifically the back-to-back killings of Alton Sterling—a 37-year-old father of five and 32-year-old Philando Castile, who was shot while in the car with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. Castile’s death was shared with the world live via Facebook. The aftermath of these tragedies included protests, peaceful and otherwise (one of which got so violent that it left five Dallas police officers dead), and created an outcry heard nationwide. It even prompted President Barack Obama to make a formal statement on the situation.
As horrific as these videos are, the public continues to watch and the views and shares are typically in the millions. But the situation begs the question: Why do people continue to watch? And, what type of an affect are these viewings having on observers?
“Watching Philando’s death was probably the worst thing I have ever seen in my life,” said Shana Galloway. “I got the notification that Lavish (Reynolds) was recording live and there it was; he was dying … in real time. I was hysterical. I was at work sitting at my desk in tears, in shock, in anger … and I don’t know either of them personally. But there was something so painful and way too real about watching someone take their last breaths, and witnessing it with his loved ones … emotionally it was way too much, I was depressed about it for days.”
“All of it (killings) is completely sickening but the video that affected me most heavily was watching Eric Garner get strangled to death, in broad daylight, while repeatedly telling the officers, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe’ over and over again,” recalled Facebook user Christopher Washington. “They jumped on him and treated him like a wild animal. That’s when I felt like war had really been waged on us (Blacks). Like even the most mundane encounter with a police officer meant I could lose my life. That fear now lives in me every day.”
Washington is not alone in his fear. What he and many others are experiencing as a result of seeing these painful images, compiled together with other negative encounters in their daily lives, is identified as “race-based trauma,” according to BlackDoctor.org. Race comes into the conversation, because although it remains yet to be proven that race played a role in these cases, what is clear according to the British Medical Journal Injury Prevention, is that African Americans are more likely to be stopped and questioned by police than any other ethnic group, which at the very least implies a bias. In 82 percent of those cases the person in arrested. So, the sheer number of, oftentimes unwarranted, interactions with law enforcement increases the probability that force will be used against these individuals.
Race-based trauma describes the physical and psychological symptoms people of color often experience after being exposed—directly or indirectly—to stressful experiences resulting from racism. According to a report by Boston College’s Institution for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture, frequent exposure to racism intensifies symptoms of trauma. “Racial trauma is a cumulative experience, where every personal or vicarious encounter with racism contributes to a more insidious, chronic stress,” the researchers wrote.
In a interview with Yes! Magazine, Monnica Williams, an African American clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities, who specializes in racial trauma, stated, “Most clinicians are White, so they don’t experience these things; so they don’t see them, and they’re not thinking about them. It’s important to always find out how much of a role stress from racism is playing in [patients’] lives, and (whether) it’s to the point where it’s traumatic.” Williams points out that only in the last 15 years have researchers made a clear connection between racial discrimination and negative health outcomes like depression, sleeplessness, anger, numbness, and loss of appetite—symptoms she regularly sees in her patients.
According to a study published in the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, African Americans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. LaWanna Gunn-Williams, a Louisiana marriage and family therapist, said it is possible for people to develop PTSD after repeatedly viewing footage of police shooting civilians. She noted a particular connection to young adults, many of whom communicate extensively online: “For younger people, looking at social media has been devastating, and it’s to the point that you don’t have to be involved in the physical situation.”
This supports the concept of racial trauma also called “vicarious trauma.” In a report titled “The Impact of Racial Trauma on African Americans” Walter Smith, Ph.D., notes the following effects:
• Increased vigilance and suspicion—Suspicion of social institutions (schools, agencies, government), avoiding eye contact, only trusting persons within our social and family relationship networks.
• Increased sensitivity to threat—Defensive postures, avoiding new situations, heightened sensitivity to being disrespected and shamed, and avoid taking risks.
• Increased psychological and physiological symptoms—Unresolved traumas increase chronic stress and decrease immune system functioning, a shift of the brain to (a marginal) limbic system dominance, an increased risk for depression and anxiety disorders, and a disruption of child development and decrease of the quality of emotional attachment in family and social relationships.
• Increased alcohol and drug usage—Drugs and alcohol are initially useful (real and perceived) in managing the pain and danger of unresolved traumas but become their own disease processes when dependency occurs.
• Increased aggression—Street gangs, domestic violence, defiant behavior, and appearing tough and impenetrable are ways of coping with danger by attempting to control our physical and social environment.
• Narrowing sense of time—Persons living in a chronic state of danger do not develop a sense of future; do not have long-term goals, and frequently view dying young as an expected outcome.
Williams assessed that viewing these types of videos is not psychologically healthy and instead encourage people to read news summaries and affirm the necessity of the media reporting police officers’ violence against civilians. People “don’t need to see bullets pumped into a defenseless guy” to understand what is happening, Williams said.
But what can be done in the meantime? Williams says that although individuals viewing these traumatic videos may have been negatively affected by them, it likely is not necessary to seek mental help and disconnecting from the visuals may lead to improvement.
In the BlackDoctor.org article, Kenneth V. Hardy from the Couple and Family Therapy Department at Drexel University, outlines in his report “Healing The Wounds of Racial Trauma” methods of coping including:
• Affirmation and acknowledgment: This involves professionals helping the individual to develop a sense of understanding and acceptance of racial issues. This step is important because it opens the door for dialogue about issues related to race.
• Create space for race: Creating space allows an open dialogue with our communities about race. Hardy notes that we must take a proactive role to identify race as a significant variable and talk openly about experiences related to race.
• Racial storytelling: Gives individuals an outlet to share personal experiences and think critically about events in their lives. This provides an opportunity to hear others voice how they have been treated differently due to their race and it helps expose hidden wounds through storytelling.
• Validation: Can be seen as a personalized tool used to counter devaluation. This provides confirmation of the individuals’ worth and their redeemable qualities.
• The process of naming: With the scarcity of research on the effects of racial trauma on mental health, there is of course no name as of yet making it a nameless condition. This in turn increases the doubt and uncertainty. By naming these experiences we give individuals a voice to speak on them and also recognize how they impact them. If we apply a mental health condition, individuals may experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
• Externalize devaluation: The aim for this step is to have people focus on increasing respect and recognizing that racial events do not lower their self-worth.
• Counteract devaluation: This step uses a combination of psychological, emotional, and behavioral resources to build self-esteem and counter racial attacks. This helps prevent future loss of dignity and sense of self.
• Rechanneling rage: By rechanneling rage, individuals can learn to gain control of their emotions and not let emotions consume them. This is an important step because it empowers people to keep pushing forward after adversity. This may include taking steps to engage in activism or self-care strategies such as spending time with family.
• Decades after Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died for racial equality in America, racism still exists and in light of the nation’s current political climate and our propensity to publicize everything, it has seemingly been brought to the forefront in a way that it hasn’t been since the Civil Rights Movement. And now, there are numerous studies that show how much of a detriment racism can be to mental health. Recording these tragic incidences is a neccesity because in some cases it’s the only way to bring attention to the injustices that Black people endure, but regularly consuming this kind of media can be doing more harm than good.