The deaths of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and others at the hands of police have pushed race in America to the forefront of the national conversation. But for many, discussions about racism and the reality of living in America as a Black person happen daily.
Watch the conversation in the player above.
The frustration pouring out onto streets stems from outrage over police brutality and American racial disparities that have been built into the nation’s economy, systems of education, criminal justice and health care.
But those vital discussions about — and visual evidence of — racism and violence can trigger significant mental health stressors in the communities who are also largely impacted by those injustices.
What mental health struggles can emerge and what is the best way to maintain good mental health during this moment of national reckoning on race? Dr. Michael Lindsey, the executive director of New York University’s McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, and PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz took viewer questions about how to manage and maintain mental health during the national conversation on race.
What are the plausible causes of mental stress in Black communities, especially among young people?
Lindsey and other researchers involved in a recent pediatric study have noted an increased rate of suicidal behavior among Black children and adolescents over the last 20 years, particularly between the ages of 5 and 12.
“It really has shocked the research and practice world, with respect to suicidal behavior,” he said.
He said that experts can only theorize about the reasons for this devastating statistic, since the data still needs to be fully researched.
That said, he believes the increased rate is likely related to the amount of images and discourse around race-related violence that circulates in the media and is easily accessible to children.
Images of people who look like them being killed by police or due to racist attacks, “makes kids perhaps feel a sense of hopelessness, a sense of despair.”
In addition to this violence, Lindsey mentions how poverty also often affects mental health, and that Black and Latino populations disproportionately experience poverty in America.
Finally, there’s trauma, Lindsey said, who emphasized the paranoia many Black youth begin to experience as they see the violence attached to racism in the U.S. They often start to think heavily about the possibility that this kind of violence can happen to them or to someone they love, which can lead to depression.
“Suicide becomes a coping mechanism,” he said.
Are women of color disproportionately affected by these stressors?
Among communities of color, women are at the intersection of race-related anxieties and gender-related stressors.
Lindsey said in these stressful times, amid heightened tensions surrounding police brutality and systemic racism, particularly when aimed against the Black community, can make that combination of issues particularly sharp.
“There’s a double stigma of being a woman and being a woman of color,” he said.
Lindsey explained that young girls often spend more time on social media, where they may be subjected to a deluge of violent imagery and discourse, which can make them especially susceptible to acute anxiety and depression.
In the recent pediatric study on suicide among Black youths, “the rate for attempts actually was increasing faster for Black females,” Lindsey said.
For older Black women, Lindsey pointed out that many are represented in service industries, where there’s a higher chance of getting COVID-19.
He also said he and his colleagues are “worried about rising rates of domestic violence,” which may be increasing in the U.S. due to the pandemic.
What is the collective toll on the Black community of seeing images of violence in the media?
With a near daily focus on race-related violence in the U.S., Lindsey is worried about the cumulative effect on mental health for Black Americans. Seeing images of Black people being killed can take a significant toll.
“Mental health challenges can be like a pressure pipe,” Lindsey explained. “And the more pressure, the more stressors that one might experience, is ultimately going to make that pipe explode.”
Lindsey focused on how these images may affect young people in particular, suggesting that their caregivers should filter daily content so that, together, they can have an age-appropriate conversation about the topic.
“Caregivers should be the source of information,” he said.
Lindsey also emphasized the systemic cause of this mental stress, and advocated for dramatic reform among police departments in America. He pointed to efforts that push for more social worker involvement during police calls and increased funding for social services in general.
“We need to revisit and reimagine what law enforcement looks like in our society,” he said.
What can be done to alleviate mental stress?
In this period of very real stressors, from the pandemic to race-related violence, it’s more important than ever for Black Americans to develop good mental health habits.
First, he said people should consider professional help.
“Taking the challenge to get the support you need is worth it,” he said.
He said, for many Black Americans, it’s difficult to gain access to therapy in the first place, often due to financial limitations, or even a social stigma within the culture.
Lindsey recommended practicing meditation or prayer for five to 10 minutes, either in the morning or before bed, as a way to relieve mental pressure built up during the day. He said studies have shown these kinds of habits truly help you focus on making it through the day.
“Those kinds of mindfulness activities really play an important role in relieving one of stress,” he said.
Lindsey also said one of the most important things we can all do during the time of social distancing is to reach out to our loved ones. It’s very easy to become detached without daily physical interactions, which is why he recommended making an intentional effort to call or video message people in your life. Creating an outlet for people to express their frustrations and anxieties, or just create a space to get away from those issues, can be beneficial for everyone involved.
“I encourage any kind of community,” he said. “Social distancing doesn’t mean you should be socially isolating.”