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The Impact of Trauma – Even from a Distance

  • June 09, 2020
  • Patients and Families, Trauma

In recent weeks, many Americans have been repeatedly exposed to images and videos on social media and the news of disturbing violent scenes, such as the death of George Floyd. It is widely known that direct exposure to traumatic events can lead to mental health impacts such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet even without direct exposure, indirect and repeated exposure to videos of violent racist attacks can also have harmful effects on mental health.

A 2019 study found a significant association between viewing traumatic events online and symptoms and depression and PTSD. More frequent viewing of videos of traumatic experiences was associated with higher levels of PTSD symptoms and depressive symptoms. Girls experiences greater PTSD and depressive symptoms than boys. Latinx individuals reported greater depressive symptoms than non-Latinx individuals. The study authors conclude that viewing police killings and other “distressing news directed at members of one's own racial-ethnic group or those who share the same immigration status, are related to poor mental health outcomes.”

Research from 2018 found a correlation between the mental health of Black Americans and indirect exposure to police killings of unarmed Black Americans. The population-based study found that Black adults who were exposed to information following police killings of unarmed Black Americans in their state of residence had an increase in poor mental health days. The largest effects on mental health occurred in the first and second months after exposure.

Daily discrimination and microaggression experienced by many Black Americans—including those online—also has a negative impact mental health. A study published earlier this year found that Black adolescents average more than five racial discrimination experiences per day. “The racial discrimination occurs individually, vicariously, online, offline, and in teasing” and online experiences are more common than offline experiences, stated the study. These experiences of discrimination are associated with increased symptoms of depression. The study “highlights the urgent, continual, and multidimensional nature of racial discrimination for contemporary Black adolescents” and also highlights its role in persistent racial health inequities, the authors conclude.

Alfiee Breland-Noble, Ph.D., a psychologist and host of the youth mental health show, Couched in Color with Dr. Alfiee, talked about secondary and tertiary trauma in a recent Instagram video, called “Police Brutality, Sensitive Content + Mental Health in Black Communities.” She suggests there are ways for people to stay in the fight to expose and eradicate injustice and racism without extending the trauma by repeated exposure to horrifying, brutal events. She suggests limiting your own viewing of these events and limiting sharing or using social media warnings and notices to alert others to disturbing content.

Even while the focus is on the fight against racial injustice, self-care and paying attention to your mental health is important. If you are feeling overwhelmed, help is available. Several recent publications have pulled together lists of mental health and wellness resources that focus on supporting Black Americans and other people of color:


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