Black Mental Health Matters: Coping with Our Collective Traumas

Black Lives Matter Sign

By Ava Marshall

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Sean Reed. Atatiana Jefferson. The names of just a small few of us killed at the hands of police. A few of the hundreds that have lost their lives to a racist system, more than a few of whom still have no justice. As protests occur around the nation and the world, it is clear we are sick and tired, and ready to fight. Still, witnessing the violence waged against people who look like us while working to make a change can be hella overwhelming. Whether it’s anger, sadness, dissociation, or a combination, the physical and emotional toll of these tragedies and their entanglement with the history of our Black experience speaks to a collective trauma.

We sat down with psychologist Dr. Scyatta A. Wallace to discuss the effects of racism, police brutality, and … and where we go from here.

How do these traumas affect us collectively?

Dr. Wallace: “Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd.  The murders of these and so many other innocent Black people are vicious crimes that have a deep impact on us individually and collectively.  The visual images and sounds repeated on social media cause us to relive the hurt all over again.  This creates re-traumatizing experiences called vicarious trauma where we are not the one being victimized, but we are seeing the victimization up close enough that we experience trauma ourselves. Add to this the generational trauma that has been passed down from generations of our ancestors being oppressed and killed in a similar fashion. It goes deep, and there is a lot of damage to the mental and physical health of Black communities by these incidents. “

How does all this impact our everyday mental and physical health?

“These traumas can lead to increases in mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], which can look like sleeplessness, headaches, outbursts of anger, and other uncontrollable emotions. Research has shown that traumas like this also cause a lot of stress, which in addition to increasing emotional issues, can weaken our immune system, leading to increased risks for illness and disease.”

What can we do to cope and protect our energy? 

“What we need to do is fully acknowledge the grief and emotions that we feel.  Take the time to feel the hurt, anger, and pain. Cry when you need to. Limit the amount of time spent online watching or reading about the incidents.  Lean on wellness and spiritual practices. This can include meditation, prayer, journaling, and artistic expression. Increase self-care like taking baths, getting more rest, and exercise. Understand that not everyone is going to react the same.  Be kind to family and friends who may not be in a place to talk about it or need time to process in silence.”

What does healing look like?

“A way to healing is also in turning the darkness into light. Creating activism in honor of their lives is a great way to do this. It could be making murals or writing pieces documenting the lives of those that were lost. Having celebration of life ceremonies to showcase their humanity, strength, and contribution to the world. Working in your community to develop anti-hate events.  The most important thing to consider in these moments is how can we become better from this. How can the trauma be a starting point for individual and collective healing, so their lives are not lost in vain.”

Take care of yourself and one another. We got y’all. We got each other.

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