- On May 14, a shooter opened fire in a Tops Friendly Markets store in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people and injuring 3, 11 of whom were Black.
- The shooter is said to have written a document full of antisemitic and racist memes before the shooting.
- Many mental health experts say that in addition to racial discrimination and violence being harmful to the mental health of Black people, the constant barrage of media coverage can be as well.
This past week another tragedy flooded the media circuits. A self-proclaimed white supremacist planned a racist attack in Buffalo, New York, resulting in the shooting deaths of 10 people and the injury of 3. Of the 13 people, 11 were Black.
The public and media outlets have shared their collective grief for the families of the victims and contempt for the shooter, but there are many people who weren’t involved who have been impacted.
According to Mental Health America (MHA), racial discrimination is another form of trauma, which raises questions about how can we effectively process and move forward when we live in a world that not only operates on systemic racism but broadcasts its effects over and over?
The interviews in this article were edited for clarity and brevity.
Psych Central talked with the following Black professionals about the mental health implications of violence like this, alongside what we can do to take care of ourselves and each other.
- Larry Ozowara, MD, psychiatrist, and senior medical director at Valera Health in Brooklyn, New York
- Deidre White, licensed marriage and family therapist with Path to Peace in Georgia
- June Hall, EdD, speaker, author, and counselor in Florida
- Nicole Washington, DO, MPH, chief medical officer of Elocin Psychiatric Services in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Psych Central Medical Advisory Board member
- Jameta Nicole Barlow, PhD, MPH, community health psychologist and assistant professor of writing at George Washington University in D.C.
- Renetta Weaver, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist based in Maryland
- Akilah Reynolds, PhD, a licensed psychologist in California and Psych Central Medical Advisory Board member
- Jacquelyn Johnson, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in California and Psych Central Medical Advisory Board member
How can we manage hypervigilance for ourselves and our families when engaging in public places?
Nicole Washington: This hyperawareness of surroundings that Black people are experiencing is very much based in reality and more similar to the hypervigilance we see in those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Finding a community to process these feelings is important. That can range from talking openly with close friends and family to visiting a therapist to help you process your feelings.
Jacquelyn Johnson: There are people out to target us for no other reason than the color of our skin. We’re right to be vigilant and wary when engaging in public spaces — that is a healthy and natural reaction to trauma. The goal is to hold the tension between being alert, aware, and even mildly suspicious as a form of protection while also continuing to engage in life in meaningful and purposeful ways.
June Hall: Communication is key. Stating our fears and expressing the anxieties being caused by the violence is a step toward dealing with our reservations about going out and being free from harm.
How can Black people feasibly prioritize our mental health while we’re flooded with violent headlines?
Larry Ozowara: There’s never a good time to witness (or repeatedly witness) violence or tragedy, but there are opportunities to regain some semblance of control over the way in which it’s delivered to us. I took the approach of not watching, reading about, or listening to the news in the hour before I go to sleep at night or after I wake up in the morning. That hour of peace is essential.
Deidre White: One way is minimizing our exposure to the media. Constant exposure to graphic images and replays can make the distress we’re experiencing even worse. Find a balance between staying informed and being overwhelmed by the information presented, remember the duty of self-care, and receive news from reputable sources.
Washington: Just knowing these events are occurring is stressful enough, but to have to watch them happen, either in real-time or replayed on the news or social media, is cruel and potentially traumatizing to a whole community of people. My biggest recommendation is to protect yourself against unnecessary and repeated exposures.
Akilah Reynolds: Give yourself permission to prioritize your mental health. Be intentional about connecting with family, friends, and community and doing things that fill you up.
If watching media stories of violent headlines is further traumatizing, it’s OK to limit your exposure, especially during these trying times — cultivate joy as a form of resistance.
Jameta Barlow: We don’t have the privilege of ignoring these moments, but we can take an emotional break or refreshment throughout our day, which may be some form of mindfulness or engaging in hobbies that bring you joy.
Decades of gun and racially motivated violence on the news have led to desensitization for some and a sense of overwhelm for others. We asked our experts a two-part question in light of this.
Should we move forward with business as usual, or is it beneficial to take a breath?
White: People cope in different ways, so there may not be a blanket best fit for everyone. Some people need to continue business as usual to maintain routines and a sense of normalcy, while others may need rest to regroup. The important thing is to be aware of what your needs are and set boundaries to meet them.
Hall: We can’t stop living our lives, but it is helpful and necessary to take a breather and find coping methods as we move forward.
Washington: Unfortunately, I’ve heard from many people that this just feels like much more of the same and that there’s a feeling of numbness surrounding this event. For most, I think it’s hard to not be affected in some kind of way. For those individuals, I definitely recommend taking a breath. Take an actual break from TV, social media, and even work for a few minutes and just go outside. Take some deep breaths.
How can we communicate those needs to friends, colleagues, and work leadership?
Ozowara: In the workplace, you may feel pressure to discuss or comment on racially motivated violence. Let your colleagues know what you need from them as much as what you don’t need.
Washington: It can be difficult to communicate your needs to colleagues and work leadership, but the best way is to be calm and clear about what you’re asking for and why.
Reynolds: Be honest with others about what you need, whether that’s space or emotional support. You can share how you’re feeling about the recent media coverage and make a request from them.
For example, you could say, “I’m feeling very overwhelmed by the violence in our country. I would appreciate not watching or discussing the news coverage on it today. Would you like to watch a movie or grab some food with me instead?”
White: Other people may not automatically know how to support you. Don’t ignore strong feelings and find safe spaces to express and talk about them. There’s no shame in communicating your needs to others and using resources available such as the employee assistance program (EAP) with your job.
Renetta Weaver: It’s important for us to remember that trauma and grief are felt and expressed very differently among people, even in the same identified culture, family, or group. Black and brown people have indeed been exposed to decades of racially motivated violence, but their outward reaction isn’t a true measure of the damage this causes. The appearance of strength and being indifferent or unbothered is protective for some people. One thing we can communicate is that “It’s OK not to be OK.”
What does allyship look like in response to racially motivated violence for those you’re close to, in the workplace, or if you’re in a position of leadership?
Ozowara: The workplace is an opportunity to create a safe and supportive environment. As leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure a safe work environment, whether through a companywide statement or personal check-in with an employee.
Stepping back can be as important as reaching out. Allow an employee to have a day off without question or judgment and be OK with silence.
Barlow: Allies, employers, and those in leadership must recognize that while the world is attempting to return to work after stay-at-home measures are being lifted, expectations for productivity are increasing.
For Black folks, there’s an added level of stress that we’re so used to that we don’t even recognize we’re managing life amidst the extreme threats to our daily lives.
As a result, even the Black person who appears to be thriving is also managing this threat. Sometimes simply asking them how they’re doing can make all the difference.
Weaver: Allyship in response to racially motivated violence can look the same in personal and professional settings and can mean:
- staying educated about the effects of chronic trauma
- empowering people and reminding them of their greatness
- creating and holding safe spaces for Black and brown people to express their emotions
This looks like listening without interjecting with statements that minimize, patronize, or belittle someone’s feelings.
Just listen, acknowledge, and keep holding space.
Navigating daily discrimination and racism can have detrimental effects on your mental and physical health.
The fear of racially based violence and the media storm surrounding tragedies such as the one in Buffalo can add to those negative health implications.
It’s OK to take a pause from the news and continue to do activities that you enjoy in addition to reaching out to process what you’re feeling — this includes connecting with a mental health professional specializing in trauma if that feels comfortable to you.
If you’re unsure where to start looking for a mental health professional, you can check out Psych Central’s page on mental health resources for people of color.