As States Push for Police Accountability, Advocates Focus on Black Trauma

By: - May 7, 2021 12:00 am

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255. Other mental health resources can be found below.

When a jury convicted former officer Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd, a Black man, by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, the Rev. Earle Fisher was unsure how to process the news—an uneasiness felt by many Black Americans.

He turned to his church sanctuary in Memphis, Tennessee, and preached a sermon on pain and the legacy of Black trauma. His remarks focused on the countless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers and the importance of therapy, he said.

“I always try to ensure that we don’t provide some cheap or trite spiritualized solution to mental health,” said Fisher, the pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis. “We don’t say, ‘Just pray about it.’ I encourage people to get therapy.”

Black Americans are killed by police at nearly two and a half times the rate of White people. Widely publicized violent acts, such as police killings of Black people and decisions not to indict the officers involved in the incidents, may harm the mental health of Black Americans, a recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found.

Nearly 2,000 police overhaul and accountability bills in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have been filed this session as federal and state lawmakers face mounting pressure to respond to continued police shootings and nationwide protests. Mental health advocates and professionals say passing such laws is necessary, but they argue strongly for additional measures to address the trauma Black people face because of policing issues.

They’re pushing for more affordable and accessible mental health care, trauma-informed training for law enforcement officials and financial support for Black mental health professionals and community organizations. Mental health advocates also want to help Black people overcome any fear or distrust of the medical system.

Years of research have shown that violent encounters with police officers have profound effects on Black Americans’ health and life expectancy. Aggressive forms of policing—such as consistent patrolling of neighborhoods, racially profiling residents and arresting people on suspicion of low-level infractions—long have been concentrated in African American communities.

One in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by law enforcement, which is one of their leading causes of death, according to another Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study.

Aggressive policing can take a toll on the mental and physical well-beings of communities of color, even for people who had nonviolent, short-lived interactions with police, research shows.

Often, communities of color are overexposed to police contact. For example, Black residents make up more than 40% of Philadelphia’s population, but accounted for 70% of police stops during the second half of 2019, according to the latest monitoring report of stops and frisks by the Philadelphia Police Department. The monitoring is required as part of a 2011 consent decree that resulted from an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia.

Black people in Philadelphia were also 50% more likely to be stopped without reasonable suspicion, the analysis said.

Violent encounters with police can lead to psychological distress and suicide, and even nonviolent interactions can create elevated levels of trauma, anxiety, depression and psychological strain, according to a recent health policy brief published in the journal Health Affairs by researchers at the University of Michigan and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

The authors called for federal standards requiring law enforcement agencies to provide standardized data on their interactions with the public so researchers can better understand “how even seemingly innocuous encounters with law enforcement affect health.”

This epidemic of “state-sanctioned, barbaric killings” of Black and brown people is not new, noted Dee Lisa Cothran, a psychologist and associate professor at Alabama State University. Cothran connected the police shootings—and the trauma they inflict—to the broader historical pattern of violence against Black people in America. She recalled, for example, conversations as a youth with her mother about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. The attack on the predominantly Black church in Birmingham, Alabama, which served as a hub for civil rights activity, killed four young Black girls and injured others.

Cothran had a personal connection to the case: One of the girls was her mother’s playmate, she recalled.

“Unfortunately, this is the history of African Americans in this country. It’s like, here we are. We’re just trying to survive,” Cothran said. “When you have this long history of operating under extreme stress and extreme duress, it wears on you mentally and emotionally.”

States Step In

Several states are considering or have passed laws that would help prevent or address the type of police policies that traumatize communities of color.

Maryland passed a new law that will establish a unit in the attorney general’s office to investigate police killings of civilians, and implement a new use of force policy that includes criminal penalties for officers of up to 10 years. New Mexico ended its use of qualified immunity, which shielded police officers from civil rights lawsuits.

And some states are working to address police officers’ mental health and to better train them to deal with people with mental illness. In North Carolina, where a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City last month, Senate Republicans introduced a bill that would make public more data on shootings and require officers to receive a psychological screening and to get mental health and wellness-informed training.

Democratic lawmakers in New York and Utah similarly introduced proposals that would require officers to receive mental health training. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, signed the state’s bill into law in March.

Programs in place for Black people to get mental health help are scant.

In 2015, almost 50% of White people who had a mental illness received mental health services compared with about 30% of Black people with such illnesses, according to a resource guide by the American Psychiatric Association.

Schools are also rethinking mental health. Denise Calhoun, a school interventionist in the Mississippi Delta, argued the mental well-being of youth, especially Black kids, should get more attention, especially as some lawmakers advance bills that would prohibit public schools from certain lessons about race and racism.

Most of the bills would bar teaching that racism is ingrained in the systems of American society. Some bills would forbid racial and cultural sensitivity training for school officials and withhold state funds from schools with such programs. At least 10 states have introduced or passed similar legislation.

Calhoun, who usually saw students in person every day before the pandemic, said she’s noticed that students are more withdrawn this school year and that it’s harder to reach them virtually. In an effort to connect with them, Calhoun created surveys to assess their needs and set up a Google Voice number for parents. But she received few responses, she said.

Constant police shootings, remote learning challenges and pandemic-related health disparities have made Calhoun especially concerned about students’ mental health, she said.

Other student advocates also have called on the Biden administration to prioritize support programs for K-12 students and young adults.

The American Rescue Plan Act enacted in March allocated about $2.5 billion to address the country’s mental illness and addiction crisis, including $825 million for the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant program. The law also increased funding for other mental health services such as youth suicide prevention.

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed a law that creates a new agency to oversee mental and behavioral health services. The state’s behavioral health hotline saw a 30% increase in calls and texts during the pandemic, the Colorado Department of Human Services said in an April news release. State lawmakers also filed a bill that would provide minors with three free sessions with a mental health professional, though it doesn’t directly target people of color.

Help Still Needed

Some Black people don’t seek therapy or counseling because they distrust the health system, or they don’t know Black medical professionals. About 4% of psychologists in the country are Black, data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows.

Stigmas of mental health issues and a lack of education contribute to the resistance, said Rev. JeVon Marshall, who is a pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Walls, Mississippi. He added that therapy can bring feelings of shame or concerns around confidentiality. This makes it tough to get people to commit to counseling, Marshall said.

More than 60% of Black people think depression is a personal weakness, according to a widely cited 1998 survey by the National Mental Health Association.

A study in Nursing Research, a health journal, found that 90% of Black people reported using religion as a coping mechanism for mental health issues.

To resist that custom, pastoral leaders such as Marshall and Fisher don’t subscribe to the “just pray about it” mentality, they said. Similarly, some Black professors, advocates and psychologists use nontraditional methods to change the way oppressed and marginalized communities talk about mental health and illnesses.

For Lorenzo Lewis, reframing mental health in the Black community means meeting Black men where they are—in the barbershop. The Confess Project, which Lewis founded to support barbers seeking to become mental health advocates, trains barbers in four areas: active listening, validation, positive communication and stigma reduction.

The most challenging part of the initiative, Lewis said, is getting communities to see past shame about mental health. To that end, rather than pushing men into therapists’ offices, The Confess Project brings therapists, if necessary, into the barbershops.

“Trauma and stress are so normalized that we don’t see it in ourselves. For whatever reason, we see it in other people,” Lewis said. “Most of the time, [Black people] are very apprehensive and that’s why we do it how we do.”

Yolonda Coles Jones, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based organizer and wellness coach, teaches classes on how to have difficult conversations about race across groups. She includes people who are allies of communities of color but don’t know where to begin.

She said she asks questions such as: “What is your proximity to this system that keeps this going? What are you saying at work? What are you saying at the backyard cookout? Are you calling [racist behavior] out, and in what ways are you doing it?”

These conversations demand “real emotional, spiritual and energetic labor,” she said, which can be taxing.

Doing such work also takes money, Jones, said, noting that funding is a common challenge for churches, mental health organizations and other Black health specialists. She implored people and organizations in power to take steps to make mental health care more accessible. Supporting grassroots efforts like hers would be a start, she said.

“This is a heart level, human level, relationship that we’re working on. It’s not just [about] laws,” Coles Jones said. “But, there needs to be some effort to support the people who are in the bodies that are most traumatized, and to help the helpers who are trying to help those bodies, and to educate the people who see what’s happening and don’t know where to start.”

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Aallyah Wright

Aallyah Wright reports on rural affairs and leads race and equity coverage for Stateline. Previously, Aallyah worked for Mississippi Today, a digital nonprofit newsroom covering K-12 education and government in the Mississippi Delta.