For several decades, even though there were good intentions, some peaceful protests turned into riots which resulted in traumatic experiences for many people, with some losing their lives in the process. Only days after George Floyd’s death, there was a global outcry demanding justice not only for George Floyd, but for all of Black lives that were lost from police brutality. While many people have been severely injured or died from partaking in protests which involved harsh forces executed from police officers, rubber bullets, or exposure to tear gas, many reports overlooked the violence on protestors and only focused on the looting.
For example, when a protestor is exposed to chemicals such as pepper spray, not only do they have little or no time to react, but the aftermath can be traumatic. The Physicians of Human Rights have stated, “The physical symptoms of chemical irritants often result in disorientation and agitation, which can lead to a state of fear, anxiety, and panic” (Sheppard, 2020). Clinical therapist Ashley Parks says, “A lot is happening very quickly, too quickly for our minds to be able to create a cohesive narrative, in addition to there being a real or perceived threat of serious injury” (Sheppard, 2020).
According to the DSM-5, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is defined as “the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Earlier this month, I was afforded the opportunity to speak with Stony Brook University senior Goka Lee Maeba, who serves as a social activist and vice president of the NAACP. She shared her intersectional experiences as an activist, international student, and woman of color who is attending a university known for having a predominantly white demographic. Maeba has done tremendous work on the Stony Brook campus by organizing a BLM rally with her organization.
I was compelled enough to ask why she thought it was necessary to participate in a BLM rally, especially on the Stony Brook campus of all places. She responded by saying that, “Stony Brook has had different situations of being racist and tries to put themselves on a pedestal of diversity and inclusion which is, I guess, their ‘motto.’ But we see that it’s not right,” she stated. Maeba went on to say, “It was just important to use our voice and I know a lot of people like me couldn’t go protesting in the city because I’m not a citizen and it’s hard. Because I’ve seen people get their visas revoked because they’re protesting” (G. Maeba, 2020). Even though Maeba revealed it to be a scary moment in her life as an international student, she found ways to still contribute to the cause and used her voice to spread awareness about the Black Lives Matter movement on her campus, giving students a platform to allow their voices to be heard.
Black women’s exposure to witnessing the news about Breonna Taylor’s death can lead to anxiety and developing secondary trauma, which has been defined as “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another” (Peterson, 2018). It is possible that while some protestors may not have been directly affected by being subjected to physical abuse, witnessing fellow protesters get injured in advocating for social justice is enough to be traumatizing as well. I asked Maeba if she felt as though she was exposed to secondary trauma due to her involvement in protests and staying updated on social justice news. She responded by saying, “Yes. Because again, it’s easy to put yourself in that situation because it really could have been you,” she stated. Maeba went on to explain, “I feel like, that’s what a lot of us took away from that because Breonna was just a regular person in her house sleeping and she got killed and it’s just a reminder that people don’t care about us” (G. Maeba, 2020).
Stress and anxiety is also known to contribute to trauma of all types. ZaDora Williams, a Black activist, operates a private counseling practice in Portland called the Sankofa Center for Healing. She is known for taking on patients who have participated in the Black Lives Matter Movement. She has mentioned that ever since the protest began in light of George Floyd, more of her clients are experiencing symptoms of hypervigilance, panic, and anxiety. (Pollard, 2020). My final question to Maeba was if she had experienced any of these symptoms during her involvement in such vital organizations or at any point in her life as a woman of color, and if she did, how she coped with it. I also asked what her advice to other Black individuals who might be experiencing something similar be.
“I feel like, when I do feel anxious, from all of what you’ve mentioned, would be anxiety because just thinking about going to a certain place or stepping outside or being surrounded by a certain group of people have made me feel anxious,” she admitted. “Especially as a woman stepping into certain places does make you feel anxious…I never really thought about that. I feel like there are moments where I would just sit down because my heart wouldn’t stop racing because there was so much going on―especially with what was happening with the protestors as I’ve mentioned before, it would sometimes be too much.” It hadn’t occurred to Maeba that current events pertaining to the endangerment of Black lives contributed to her anxiety until I had asked her that question.
With police brutality becoming more frequent in the midst of the pandemic, I asked Maeba if she felt she was under any physiological and psychological stress. I also asked how she copes if she does suffer from any sort of stress as well. Maeba agreed that she does find herself being stressed and she is still learning to cope with it. She explained by saying “It’s easy to say ‘oh, it’s self care,’ but it takes a lot in order to put your mindset into that,” (G. Maeba, 2020). One of the things that does help her relax, however, is playing Among Us with friends and watching shows and movies on Netflix.
In conclusion, so many young people are putting their lives on the line in order to ensure the lives of Black people are being spared. It is doable to actively participate in protests and rallies while maintaining social distance by also reaching out to professional therapists. Protesting that Black lives matter is important, but it is crucial to prioritize your mental well being since your life matters, too.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Publisher.
Pollard, J. (2020, August 14). Psychological impacts of this moment are overwhelming, Black mental health care providers say. Retrieved November 02, 2020, from https://www.streetroots.org/news/2020/08/09/psychological-impacts-moment-are-overwhelming-black-mental-health-care-providers-say
Sheppard, S. (2020, June 17). Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets Take Their Toll on Mental Health. Retrieved November 02, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/experiencing-trauma-during-protests-5024898