Black American anxiety at all-time high, experts say

Natasha Moustache/Getty ImagesBY: RYAN SHEPARD, ABC NEWS    

(NEW YORK) — While violent police encounters involving Black people dominate headlines, the news is having a detrimental impact on the mental well-being of Black Americans, some experts say.

In the weeks following the graphic video of George Floyd pinned under the knee of a now former Minneapolis police officer, U.S. Census Bureau data found that anxiety among Black Americans had increased by 26% and depression increased by 22%.

And while Floyd’s death has emerged as a pivotal moment amid a national reckoning on race, the issue extends far beyond one summer and one man. Before Floyd, there was Tanisha Anderson, a unarmed Black woman seeking mental health assistance killed by police in Cleveland in 2014, Shereese Francis, a Black woman who was suffocated during a police encounter in 2012, and countless others.

The surging coronavirus pandemic and subsequent social unrest from police violence have resulted in a toxic daily environment that can have a deleterious effect on Black Americans’ mental health, experts say.

Dr. Thomas A. Vance of Columbia University suggests that Black Americans are 20% more likely to experience “serious mental health problems” than the general population. They also found that Black youth who are exposed to violence are 25% more likely to experience PTSD.

In 2018, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Boston University School of Public Health examined data from police killings between 2013 and 2016 and their effects on the mental health of Black Americans.

“Our estimates, therefore, suggest that the population mental health burden from police killings among black Americans is nearly as large as the mental health burden associated with diabetes,” the authors of the study wrote.

Furthermore, the study indicated that police killings during that time period contributed to 55 million poor mental health days among Black Americans annually. These 55 million days can have a negative impact on people at work or even everyday activities like going to the movies.

“[Police killings] have affected people’s everyday functioning. From people being hyper-vigilant when you’re just going outside to the onset of having a panic attack when you’re pulled over by the police, it has an effect,” Saleemah McNeil of the Oshun Family Center said.

Quinessa Stibbins, a technical design assistant and Jackie Robinson Foundation scholar, is one of the many Black Americans who has experienced worsening mental health in wake of recent events. Living in Minnesota during the deaths of Philando Castille, a Black nutrition services supervisor killed during a traffic stop in Flacon Heights, and Floyd, Stibbins has participated in protests and fundraisers in her community. Yet, she said she finds it difficult to maintain her mental health while doing so.

“I struggle with mental health anyway but seeing all of this has made it infinitely worse. There’s this awful desire to be informed, especially with continued unrest in Minneapolis, while also knowing that it is wearing me down. It’s wearing everyone down. The world is a bad place and it makes me wonder, ‘what’s the point?’ It gets hard to find a reason to live when we are surrounded by death constantly.”

Instant exposure to death and violence are issues that many face in a social media-driven era. Graphic images of the shooting of Jacob Blake or the killing of Walter Scott, a unarmed Black man shot in the back during a police encounter in North Charleston, are seemingly ubiquitous, appearing in social media newsfeeds and timelines.

Dr. Colette A. Poole-Boykin of Yale University recounts an experience in which she mistakingly watched a video of Kyle Rittenhouse fatally shooting two protesters after travelling 32 miles across state lines to Kenosha, Wisconsin. His attorney, Lin Wood, has claimed that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense.

“I did not watch the Floyd video. I still haven’t seen it. I only saw the 17-year-old who had the gun,” she said referring to Kyle Rittenhouse, the alleged gunman accused of opening fire during Kenosha, Wisconsin, protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake and of killing two people. Rittenhouse’s attorney, L. Lin Wood, has argued since that Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense.

“The only reason I saw that is because it was a clickbait. I didn’t know I would be watching the actual video. I thought I was going to be watching an interview,” she said.

Watching these videos can trigger a form of “secondary trauma,” Poole-Boykin added.

“You never know who your audience is. You never know who has gone through traumatic experiences and then, watching that video could re-traumatize them.”

Isabella Dominique, an activist and Newman Civic Fellow from Denver, also said she has been negatively affected by the circulation of deadly police encounters on social media.

“Seeing constant videos of Black death is next-level exhausting. It’s a constant reminder that we are not safe anywhere in this country, no matter what we do. For me, it breeds a sense of resiliency, but I also think it’s disgusting that that’s the case. We shouldn’t have to grow strong and be able to process violence against our people.”

And another concern: the attention garnered by violence perpetrated so often against Black men, can leave Black women feeling as though their stories are sidelined.

“Most of the attention focuses on the issue of the police killings of Black men. Grassroots movements and independent journalists are now tracking police killings because data from law enforcement on the number of Black people killed by the police is woefully inadequate. Even that scarce data however, rarely does a statistical gendered analysis, which means that the deaths of Black women at the hands of the police do not receive the level of attention that the killings of Black men receive,” University of Florida criminal law professor Michelle S. Jacobs writes

Breonna Taylor’s shooting is one of the cases involving violence against Black women by law enforcement to gain national attention that perhaps few have seen since Eleanor Bumpers was shot to death by the New York City police officers in 1984. Bumpers, a Black woman in her 60s, was fatally shot after she waved a knife at officers who were evicting her from her apartment.

From Taylor’s name placed on the back of WNBA jerseys to celebrities arrested while protesting in her honor, her death has profoundly affected many throughout the country, especially those who see themselves in her story.

Danielle Germain, a 21-year-old college student and protester in Washington, D.C., said she intimately identifies with what happened to Taylor.

“When I think about Breonna, I see myself. I think that a state of constant fear messes with my mental health because who wants to be scared all the time?”

In light of these mental health challenges, there are resources individuals can tap into within their communities that may help them assess their trauma. One of the most common sources of assistance is therapy. However, there are often economic and societal barriers that prevent access to proper mental health care. With one in five Black Americans living in poverty, mental health care can be economically unavailable for many. Compounding the issue is a severe lack of Black mental health professionals. In 2017, the American Psychological Association reported that only 2% of its members identified as Black or African American.

Saleemah McNeil of Philadelphia is a Black woman working to break down those barriers.

In Philadelphia, McNeil is striving to offset the cost of mental health services by raising money. Shortly after the world learned of Floyd’s death, McNeil set out to raise $5,000 in an effort to provide affordable mental health resources. McNeil said she exceeded her expectations, and that she raised more than $70,000 in just two weeks. She says her ultimate goal is to build a fully functioning center where members of the community can “feel a sense of healing and refuge.”

Elsewhere, Germain is building community events in Washington, D.C., where members of the community can also seek healing. Germain partnered with a local nightclub owner, Gabby Miller, to plan “The Cookout” event to provide a supportive environment to discuss solutions about improving her community. Held hours after Rev. Al Sharpton’s “Get Your Knee Off Our Neck” march, the event was exclusively catered by Black-owned restaurants, offered vendor booths for Black-owned businesses and instructed young Black Americans on how they can vote in the upcoming election.

Whether it be providing mental health services in the City of Brotherly Love or organizing community celebrations in the nation’s capital, Germain says the goal is the same; build a safer world for Black Americans.

“I think a safer world is any world where I don’t have to question my existence or have my civil rights denied. It’s a world where my fears aren’t made into a constant reality,” Germain said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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