With a current spotlight on police brutality amongst people of color in our country, it’s important to discuss the mental health effects these traumatic interactions can have on those affected.
Police brutality has been defined as the use of excessive physical force or verbal assault and psychological intimidation by law enforcement. Excessive use of force by aggressive police officers often result in increased rates of anxiety, depression, and trauma, as well as overall lower well-being, lower self-regard, and ill health, particularly among minority populations. A combination of the social stigma surrounding mental health and the lack of help offered in minority communities has led to limited resources for treatment in minority communities. Survivors of police brutality may experience similar symptoms as survivors of trauma. Clinicians can approach treatment from a trauma perspective by focusing on the following:
As in any form of trauma treatment, acknowledging that the incident has occurred is the first step to healing and recovery. For acknowledgment to occur, survivors must recognize that the instance of police brutality was a violation of their humanity. This step may be easy for some, but others may have to work through the denial and minimization of the problem. Clinicians must go through this process with patience and compassion. They must also be careful not to force survivors to acknowledge a reality that they are not prepared for as this can be damaging to the healing process. Clinicians can encourage acknowledgment through psychoeducation regarding the prevalence of police brutality and the critical role that race plays in organizing the distribution of power in society. Through acknowledgment, clinicians create an environment where conversations regarding race can emerge.
One of the most important jobs for clinicians when treating survivors of police brutality is to create a safe environment where self-disclosure is allowed. For survivors, speaking about their experiences can help to challenge any notion of shame that may be associated with the incident. Self-disclosure must be met with support, belief, and compassion from the clinician. In addition to this, self-disclosure should never be forced and must be done at the survivor’s own pace in order to help the therapy process move forward.
Clinicians should help survivors determine current levels of safety following trauma, identifying potential triggers and the fear of future discrimination in other institutions that are seemingly supposed to provide a safe environment – health care, education and work environments. If survivors feel unsafe in certain situations (e.g. working in a racially abusive environment), clinicians can help survivors take steps to change their environment (e.g. career counseling to change employment). In the event that survivors must continue to interact with the abusive environment or abuser, it is necessary for clinicians to help the survivor develop a safety plan that includes a strategy for future encounters.
Grief can appear in multiple ways when treating survivors of police brutality. Clinicians may be faced with clients who have lost loved ones to police brutality, lost their sense of self, safety and/or trust. In any circumstance, clinicians must help survivors process this loss by focusing on some areas like physical injury, humiliation, powerlessness, and shame. Male survivors may have the most difficult time processing grief because they have been socialized to refrain from expressing such emotions. Survivors may also find it difficult to express feelings of grief in the presence of a clinician who is not a member of their race. Clinicians who are not members of their client’s race must believe and validate their experiences and acknowledge such incidents as a violation. The goal here is for clinicians to create an environment which fosters trust and safety for grieving to occur.
When treating trauma, the grieving process will inevitably bring up feelings of shame and self-blame. Survivors may believe that they are “unworthy” or “less-than” because of their race and that is the reason they faced an incident like police brutality. Such distortions can be detrimental to healing if not immediately addressed by clinicians. A cognitive-behavioral approach may be beneficial in restructuring cognitive distortions that may arise as a result of shame and self-blame. Feelings of shame and self-blame may lead to internalized racism and internalized devaluation which occurs when people of color develop ideas or behaviors that support racist beliefs. Internalized racism can manifest as survivors speaking about their race or other minority races in a negative way with a tone of hatred or with humor.
When processing any form of trauma, anger is an emotion that many survivors may experience. Clinicians should listen and validate the survivor’s anger, informing them that it is acceptable to feel angry about the incident. Rage differs from anger in that it is a more complex emotion that can involve anger, explosiveness, sadness, and depression. Clinicians should help survivors identify and validate their rage as well as help them channel it in healthy ways such as journaling or activism. Helping survivors process anger may be particularly difficult for clinicians of the same race as the perpetrator. It is vital for clinicians to refrain from defending their race as it will most likely invalidate the survivor's feelings. Clinicians should maintain an anti-racist stance at all times and should never be defensive.
Coping skills exploration with an emphasis on thought stopping and relaxation techniques can help reduce fear and anxiety. Clinicians should focus on helping survivors find coping strategies that they connect with and have used successfully in the past. In addition to therapy, possible coping strategies to consider include exercise, art, journaling, reading and spirituality/religion. In order for therapy to be effective, clinicians must help survivors learn to tolerate reminders of the traumatic incident in the outside world as well as experience efficacy rather than powerlessness.
Once survivors have addressed the above themes, the clinician may help them develop resistance strategies. Resistance strategies can involve measures of activism such as lobbying, educating others, peaceful protesting and circulating petitions. Beyond helping survivors of trauma live an empowered and fulfilled life, it is just as important to give them the skills and motivation to also improve the lives of those in their communities. Clinicians can do this effectively by strengthening the survivor’s competence, autonomy, and self-worth. Many survivors of trauma find it empowering to use their voice to make a change, but clinicians should never force survivors into activism. Activism should be a suggestion and decision made by the survivor, not the clinician.
Treating survivors of police brutality can be complex. Clinicians play a vital role in helping an underserved population. If anything, clinicians must educate themselves on the topic of police brutality and to spend time reflecting on their own beliefs as it is bound to impact treatment. Following these recommendations and maintaining curiosity about the topic, can be the beginning of clinicians bringing attention to this extremely important topic. We must all do our part in helping marginalized populations realize that their lives do, indeed, matter.
Phyllis Agyapong, B.S, S/T