Learning to cope with Black trauma amid George Floyd and a pandemic

·5 min read

Black America is suffering from post-traumatic stress.

The national racial reckoning with policing and the criminal justice system catalyzed by George Floyd’s death last year was difficult enough for Black Americans. That it happened amidst the coronavirus pandemic made it even more challenging, said Brittany Peters, director of the Center for Wellness and Clinical Development in Tampa.

She was a panelist discussing how the Black community processes the traumas of the past and present at Wednesday’s virtual “The State of Black Mental Health” roundtable.

Black people have traditionally turned to their unofficial therapists — barbers and hair stylists — to express their worries and frustrations. Funerals allowed them to grieve and process the losses of loved ones together. The pandemic took all of that away, Peters said.

Instead, many had to confront anxieties and trauma at home, alone.

“Are we going to get COVID? Are we going to get shot by the police? How do we deal with violence in our own community? How are we doing financially?” said panelist Mutaqee Akbar, president of the NAACP Tallahassee chapter.

Black trauma dates back to colonization, Peters said, and has compounded ever since.

“We cannot address Black mental health without understanding history and its impact on the development of our coping skills and the Black psyche,” said Peters, a licensed clinical social worker.

She said enslaved mothers often talked down to their children and belittled their intelligence in public in order to devalue them in the eyes of their slave master and potential buyers.

“They did that so they won’t lose their baby,” Peters said.

That strategy evolved into a culture of criticism and negative thought patterns that Peters said still affects how Black families talk to each other today.

That is one of the many ways Black people experience post-traumatic slave syndrome, Peters said. The multi-generational trauma experienced by enslaved Africans that is passed on to their descendants can lead to undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

A history of racist violence also feeds that collective trauma: Nearly 260 Black Floridians were lynched between 1898 and 1968, said Tennessee State University professor Learotha Williams Jr., a scholar of African American, Civil War and Reconstruction history and Peters’ father.

Lynchings weren’t just about the individuals who were brutalized and hung from trees, Williams said. They were public acts meant to terrorize and send a message of control to the entire Black community.

Today, those traumas manifest in the form of police brutality and videos of violence against Black people that constantly circulate on social media, said Brother John Muhammad, the discussion host and director of the Community Development and Training Center in St. Petersburg.

“We don’t call them lynchings now,” he said. “It’s ‘hands up don’t shoot’ or ‘get your knee off my neck.’”

While social media raises awareness about racial injustice, it also forces Black people to repeatedly witness the traumas imposed on their community, said the Rev. Kenneth Irby, director of community intervention and juvenile outreach for the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Pernell Bush, owner of K.E.Y. Counseling Solutions in Oviedo, said he felt traumatized after watching the viral video of Floyd being pinned to the ground under a white Minneapolis police officer’s knee, gasping for air, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

One silver lining that has resulted from the pandemic, Akbar said, is that the Black community is talking more about their mental health.

But there’s still a long way to go to destigmatize Black mental health.

“Blacks feel like we have to be twice as good … we don’t want to show any weaknesses or anything that could be used against us,” said Circuit Judge Alicia Latimore, the first Black woman to serve as a circuit judge in Orange County.

“And that’s how mental health has been portrayed. Any type of mental health issue means that something is wrong with you, that you’re not good enough.”

The lack of mental health resources in Black neighborhoods is already a problem, Peters said. But the Black community in particular requires therapists of color who are willing to put in the extra time to build trust and help them open up.

“A lot of people who experience trauma have people come into their lives with good intentions … and disappear,” Bush said.

One key to destigmatizing mental health is realizing that therapy is for maintenance, Peters said, not just when someone feels that they’re in crisis.

She encourages those who seek help to try to see a therapist biweekly or monthly to deal with stressors before they escalate. Couples should consider seeing a therapist regularly to learn healthy communication and relationship-building skills. Waiting until they’re on the brink of divorce may be too late.

Her final words for the audience: “We are all each other’s responsibility … create space to hear someone.”

Mental health resources

To find Black female therapists go to: therapyforblackgirls.com

Contact the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 211 or visiting crisiscenter.com

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Online training to learn how to help others with mental health and substance-use issues is available at: mentalhealthfirstaid.org

Need help?

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24–hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.

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