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Medical Health Experts Say Watching Police Brutality Videos May Be Damaging to Mental Health of African-Americans
7/15/2016 12:15:38 PM

Tyree Johnson, cousin of Philando Castile who was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop, is consoled by one of Castile’s co-workers at a “Black Lives Matter” demonstration in front of the Governor’s Mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S., July 7, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Miller
By Liz Adetiba and Anna Almendrala

Jarrod Doyle was relaxing with friends on July 5 when the hashtag #AltonSterling popped up on his Instagram feed. He tabbed over to Google to search the name. On Facebook, he found a graphic video of two police officers pinning Sterling to the ground before fatally shooting him in the chest and back six times.

After watching that video, the 23-year-old Atlanta resident realized his teeth and hands had been clenched the entire time.

“I was instantly angry. I just kind of get that — it’s like a rage. The rage you really can’t do anything about because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. You’re just angry. You’re mad at everyone and everything,” Doyle told The Huffington Post.

As the hours passed, that anger turned into a feeling of helplessness and fear for his own life.

On July 7, Doyle was scrolling through Facebook when an autoplaying video of Philando Castile’s dying moments appeared in his feed. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond “Lavish” Williams, began recording the video on Facebook Live shortly after a police officer shot Castile during a traffic stop.

The cycle of rage, tension and fear started all over again.

“You never know when the next incident is going to be,” said Doyle, who is a black man himself. “You never know if you’re going to be that next case.”

At least 509 people have been shot and killed by police in the U.S. this year, according to a Washington Post database. More and more of those incidents are being captured on mobile phone videos, shot mostly by bystanders and then broadcast widely on social media and cable news.

That means, more and more of us are trying to decide whether to click “play” and trying to deal with our sorrow and despair afterward.

Research on the psychological effects of watching footage of police brutality is in the early stages. But medical health experts suggest there can be long-term implications, especially for those, like Doyle, who are the same race as the people being beaten and shot.

That Could Be Me Or Mine

It’s normal to feel sadness, anger and despair after watching a violent video. Research suggests that repeated viewing of terrorism news coverage can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in people who are already prone to react physically to stress or have prior exposure to violence. Scholarship also shows that racism can have a traumatizing effect on its victims.

So it’s not too big a stop to think that all these police brutality videos may be especially damaging to the mental health of African-Americans.

“When you’re part of a stigmatized community, so much of your identity is tied up in that community,” explained Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville. “And when you see other people like you who are being victimized, it makes you feel that the world’s not a safe place for people like you.”

The perception that the perpetrators of violence face no consequences for their actions can transform that trauma into terror, said Phillip Atiba Goff, a social psychology expert and president of the Center for Policing Equity.

“If you’re conditioned to a trauma, and that trauma occurs and recurs in a context where it feels you have no control over it, and it’s being done by powerful people for whom there are no consequences, that’s why I’m saying we move from trauma to terror,” Goff said.

We don’t know yet whether the police officers who shot Sterling and Castile this week will face criminal charges. But the lack of jail time for the killers of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, for instance, two black men who died at the hands of New York police in 2014, feed into the belief that police are rarely punished for their violent actions against civilians.

Not to mention the fearful certainty that it will happen again.

“What can you do? What do you do?” Doyle said. “You feel bad that you can’t do anything.”

Avoiding all such footage can be difficult, however, especially for the millions who use social media daily. Autoplaying videos autoplay. And hashtags and photos can lead people down a rabbit hole of internet searches toward grisly sights.

“The platform we use to nurture our relationships can also be the medium by which we’re traumatized,” Moeller observed.

So if you are going to watch a video, Goff has one final piece of advice: Focus on your body’s response to the footage as a way to know when it’s time to close the screen.

“If you see that your blood pressure is going up and your heart is racing, that’s a good time to stop watching,” he said.

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