There’s a saying in the healing community: “Where you find the disease is where you will find the cure.” This means that the environment where you were hurt or harmed is most likely the same place where you will find healing. But what happens when the environment itself is sick or the disease is chronic, leaving little time to heal? In psychology we use the term collective trauma to describe the symptoms a group experiences in response to exposure to chronic or prolonged stressors. Certainly, the violent events of the past several weeks, and subsequent news coverage and social media response feeds can be described as both chronic and prolonged.
We’ve literally witnessed the deaths of two Black men at the hands of police, one by live video. In fact, as of this writing, the Facebook Live stream of Philando Castile's death, narrated by his companion Diamond Reynolds, has been viewed more than 5 million times. If you keep your screens streaming, you know that across the nation people are again taking to the streets, bridges and highways to protest the relentless police violence on the lives of Black people in the United States. And so it follows, you also know that in one such protest, five Dallas police officers were killed and seven others, including two civilians, were wounded by a gunman who was targeting White police officers.
The debate on gun violence and rights rolls on, the role of the Black Lives Matter movement is questioned by some, and problematic rhetoric from political talking heads such as former congressman Joe Walsh erupts on the airwaves and on television. We are glued to our screens. We are watching, but at what personal cost? And, does watching help us to be more engaged and active in our communities? Or are we becoming desensitized to Black pain?
We’ve endured wave after wave of videos of such brutality. One of the most watched was the Rodney King video, which is largely viewed as America's first window into how modern police brutality in African American communities negatively impacts how some citizens view police. There was an understanding that this video had a clear purpose, to start a national conversation. Since the King video we’ve seen countless pictures and other forms of media of Black bodies tortured, battered and beaten. We can now watch high-quality, detailed videos from different angles, on a loop, or even live. Trauma porn.
Though we focus on the obvious implications of these videos, what isn’t often acknowledged is that the repeated consumption of that media may have deeper psychological consequences.
A significant risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) is witnessing a traumatic event. The continual viewing of such events, hearing the gun shots and feeling the drop of your own tears alongside those of Reynolds is striking. Realizing that Reynolds recounts exactly what is happening to the man she loves and that she is rendered powerless to protect him or her daughter further emboldens our outrage. Hearing the little girl comfort her mother is almost too much to bear.
But know that there is a mental and emotional cost to bearing witness to the horrific experiences of others. This is made worse when we identify with the individual(s) that are victimized. Psychologists at Boston College have articulated #racialtraumaisreal to validate the experiences of racialized trauma on people of color and those that love them. We feel connected and this makes our viewing of violence against Black men, women and children particularly difficult. At the same time we may feel compelled to watch in an effort to be in solidarity and to stay “in the know.”
Self-love, care and preservation are speaking to us when we say: “I just can’t.” Whether turning away from the videos or muting the debate about the value of Black versus blue lives, doing so is a call from the depths of one’s being to recognize our inherent humanity. Being disconnected from one’s humanity is traumatizing and as mental health professionals, we are compelled to help the public become more aware of the ways this trauma is triggered.
So how do you know you’re affected? Typically many of the characteristic PTSD symptoms may occur. They include:
- Difficulty sleeping or angry outbursts
- Feeling tense or on edge
- Persistent negative thinking or mood
- Hopelessness, depression and thoughts of suicide
- Physical symptoms (headaches, stomach pain, muscle aches/tension, back pain, etc.)
The legacy of the “strong black woman” and John Henryism (or “magic Negro,” if you will) are long and problematic, and speak to ways in which Black men and women have been socialized to not attend to their personal limitations in the face of human tragedy and discomfort. Though the enormity of systematic racism may make us feel disempowered and reactive, there are steps we can take to care for ourselves.
- Be cognizant of how you’re using and consuming media (e.g., where are you most likely to watch videos)
- Take planned breaks away from social media
- Discuss your feelings with a safe contact in person
- Participate in groups or organizations where you can be socially active
- Try not to watch harmful videos more than once
- Observe trigger warnings and be sure to post these warnings when sharing
Our willingness to face pain and move through it have carried us a long way. Lately it seems like we have a longer road to travel. If that truly is the case, then we have to continue to work at creating healing spaces within our community while fighting for change. Yes, we are in pain and bear witness to it every day. But if we are to move forward in meaningful ways we must recognize our pain, and learn to take care of ourselves.
Dr. Wendi S. Williams is a psychological consultant and educator in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Twitter @drwendiwilliams