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A Psychologist’s Perspective on Watching the Chauvin Trial

Witnessing police violence has psychological risks. Here's how to cope.

Key points

  • Police violence can lead to negative mental health symptoms among Black people.
  • Race-related stress may affect individuals cognitively, emotionally, somatically, relationally, behaviorally, and spiritually.
  • Self-care strategies can reduce negative psychological reactions.

Fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

Derek Chauvin is charged with manslaughter, second-degree murder, and third-degree murder for the death of George Floyd. As a Black man and psychologist, I made an active decision not to watch the trial for many reasons. First, given my work and research on this topic, I am very aware of the psychological impacts of repeated exposure to police violence and re-watching videos of police killings. On the other hand, I’ve also had direct experience with being “stopped while being Black” and have experienced the fears of many Black men about potentially not walking away from those interactions with police. Lipscomb et al. (2019) note that, “the feeling of being hunted as a Black man continues to be a sentiment that is widely experienced among the community” (p.16).

Psychological Science and Effects of Witnessing Police Violence

Numerous psychological studies have been conducted to understand how police killings impact Black individuals' mental health. There should be no surprise that witnessing police violence or hearing about it through media sources (e.g., television or social media) can have a negative impact on the mental health of Black people. Not only does racism traumatize, but it also hurts, enrages, dehumanizes, humiliates, and prevents optimal psychological and emotional growth for marginalized and oppressed communities and groups (Lipscomb et al., 2019). Carter (2007) describes how race-related stress or race-based traumatic stress can occur following acute or chronic (repeated) exposure to racism or discrimination. Race-based traumatic stress may include having reactions of intrusion, avoidance of stimuli associated with traumatic events, and increased arousal or hypervigilance (Carter, 2007).

Others have reported that indirectly or directly experiencing racist incidents such as police brutality can lead to Black Americans displaying stress, anger, and symptoms of depression, anxiety, or PTSD (Bryant-Davis, 2007; Carter, 2007; Turner, 2019). Additionally, psychological science indicates that race-related stress can affect individuals cognitively, emotionally, somatically, relationally, behaviorally, and spiritually. Bryant-Davis (2007) notes the possible effects of race-related stress:

  • Cognitive effects may include difficulty concentrating, remembering, and focusing.
  • Affective effects may include numbness, depression, anxiety, grief, and anger.
  • Somatic complaints may include migraines, nausea, and body aches.
  • Relationally, victims may demonstrate distrust of members of the dominant group or, in cases of internalized racism, distrust of members of their own racial group.
  • Behaviorally, victims may begin to self-medicate through substance misuse or other self-harming activities.
  • Spiritually, victims may question their faith in God, humanity, or both.

Coping with Race-Based Traumatic Stress

Given the psychological impacts of race-based traumatic stress, numerous academic scholars and trained clinicians have offered tools for coping with racial stress or race-based traumatic stress. For Black people who decide to watch the Chauvin trial, the following tips may be helpful to reduce the negative emotional reactions that may occur or resurface.

The following suggestions are offered from the Institution for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College:

  • Acknowledge Your Thoughts and Emotions. Everyone responds differently when witnessing police violence or racist incidents. According to the ISPRC, acknowledgment is important. To increase self-awareness, they suggest "journaling, practicing mindful body scans to check your body for signs of stress and anxiety, and active reflection of the feelings you are having."
  • Seek Support. It is important to identify individuals who you know will be able to actively listen to your feelings and experience. The ISPRC note that seeking support helps to "facilitate positive coping and management of racial trauma responses." Furthermore, it may be helpful to consider working with a licensed mental health professional or psychologist to help process your thoughts and feelings. The ISPRC also notes that some individuals benefit from guidance from trusted mentors, spiritual leaders, or supportive groups.
  • Engage in Self-Care. According to the ISPRC, "self-care is deliberate and should be self-initiated to promote and maintain overall wellness. Whether done in groups or individually, the key is to minimize negative intake of information, including social media outlets or discussions, in an effort to enhance personal well-being. Self-care should involve activities that bring some pleasure and promote a healthy lifestyle to offset the effects of race-based stressors." As part of this self-care, individuals should recognize when it is time to disconnect from watching the Chauvin trial.
  • Engage in Resistance and Activism. The ISPRC notes that "continued witnessing of racial discrimination can prompt avoidance, fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, or lack of motivation." One of the ways to reduce these feelings is to engage in activism—"channeling the hurt, anger, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that you are feeling by participating in social-change activities in your community." Those who prefer different methods for engaging in social change can consider how donating to support causes, writing letters to policymakers or members of Congress, and signing petitions also can play a vital role.

References

Bryant-Davis, T. (2007). Healing requires recognition: The case for race-based traumatic stress. The Counseling Psychologist, 35(1), 135-143.

Carter, R. T. (2007). Racism and psychological and emotional injury: Recognizing and assessing race-based traumatic stress. The Counseling Psychologist, 35(1), 13-105.

Lipscomb, A. E., Emeka, M., Bracy, I., Stevenson, V., Lira, A., Gomez, Y. B., & Riggins, J. (2019). Black male hunting! A phenomenological study exploring the secondary impact of police induced trauma on the Black man’s psyche in the United States. Journal of Sociology, 7(1), 11-18.

Turner, E.A. (2019). Mental health among African Americans: Innovations in research and practice. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing.

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