Black Men Heal co-founder Zakia Williams was deeply moved as she watched a young Black man become emotional while speaking about the mental health toll the past few years have taken on him.
“He said ‘I just want to play basketball without fear of getting shot, I just want to live. I just want to be,’” Williams recalled the young man saying at a virtual group therapy session, Kings Corner, that her Philadelphia-based group holds weekly for Black men across the U.S. and internationally.
“A lot of our men report being overwhelmed, tired and feeling like they’re being attacked. They see themselves in George Floyd. Each one of them says, ‘That could have been me.’”
Wednesday marked the second anniversary of Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked a global protest movement and calls for a racial reckoning to address structural racism that has created long-standing inequities impacting generations of Black Americans.
Floyd’s slaying, along with a series of killings of other Black Americans, has wrought a heavy toll on the emotional and mental health of Black communities burdened by centuries of oppressive systems and racist practices. Mental health experts say the racism that causes the trauma is embedded in the country’s fabric and can be directly linked to the mental duress many experience today.
But the nation has been slow to reckon with the generational impact of racial trauma, a form of identity-related distress that people of color experience due to racism and discrimination.
“Black mental health has always been a topic of concern,” said Dr. Christine Crawford, associate medical director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Continuously seeing these images of Black people being killed … can elicit trauma-like symptoms in Black people and others who feel somehow connected to what is going on,” she said. This “impact of vicarious racism certainly has contributed to worsening mental health states, specifically within the Black community.”
The past two years have been particularly traumatizing for Black Americans as the coronavirus pandemic cut a devastating swath through their communities, taking the lives of elders, community pillars and loved ones across the nation.
“The neighbors who never came back after that ambulance ride, we saw it up close and personal,” Riana Elyse Anderson, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, said of her hometown of Detroit, which was hit hard by the pandemic.
“And the greater Black community, when you’re looking at how disproportionate the impact was to our mental health, our financial well-being and the loved ones who are no longer here, it’s really hard for us to move forward.”
A collective sense of trauma resurfaced again on May 14 when 10 Black people were killed by a white supremacist in body armor targeting shoppers and workers at the Tops Friendly Market in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. For many, the grief feels endless.
“In Buffalo, we see people that look like our family and we’re forced to grapple with that,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a civil rights organization. “It is a set of circumstances that Black people and other communities that have been targeted, attacked and exploited, have to constantly face.”
“It is the simultaneous work of having to take care of yourself, dealing with the trauma, and then thinking about how to engage in the path forward and that is work that we’ve had to do for generations,” he said. “And it’s work that is stressful and tiring.”
While Black Americans experience similar rates of mental illness as other Americans in general, disparities persist, according to a 2021 American Psychological Association study. Black Americans often receive poorer quality of care and lack access to culturally appropriate care.
Just 1 in 3 Black Americans who need mental health help receives it and Black adults living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report serious psychological distress as U.S. adults who enjoy greater financial security, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health.
While the disparities exist across the board for Black Americans, the APA study noted that Black men in particular have not received the help they need. Just 26.4% of Black and Hispanic men between 18 and 44 years old who experienced daily feelings of anxiety or depression were likely to have used mental health services, compared with 45.4% of white men with the same feelings.
Black Men Heal was launched in 2018 as a solution to the nation’s “broken, inequitable mental health care system” that has historically failed to center the needs of Black Americans and other people of color, group leaders say. Its main program matches therapists of color with men, who are given eight free individual therapy sessions. More than 1,100 therapy sessions have been provided since the group started and 50 therapists have been recruited. Nearly 80% of the men continue their mental health care beyond the free sessions.
“If one man can heal himself, he has the possibility of healing his household, which then has the possibility of healing our community,” said Williams, the group’s chief operating officer.
After the Buffalo shooting, some Black Americans have expressed outrage and fear, saying they should be able to go about their daily lives without feeling they could be threatened or killed. The grocery store where the attack happened was a gathering place, especially for older community residents.
Black organizations have been working to get resources to the Buffalo shooting victims’ families, including access to mental health care. Phylicia Brown, executive director of Black Love Resists in the Rust, said the member-led, abolitionist organization has been collecting donations to provide a year of mental health service access to residents impacted by the shooting.
“Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the nation,” Brown said. “It’s important to talk about our history of white supremacist violence through acts like this. And I think that it has really taken a toll on everyday citizens and our Black mental health workers, who are grieving and who are angry and who are feeling all the things that we are feeling.”
Brown, whose group was formed after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to strategize ways to abolish racist systems and practices, said real change won’t come until the nation truly dismantles the white supremacy and racism that has been allowed to traumatize and terrorize Black people throughout history.
“Unless white people are checking themselves and one another, unless white people are organizing at the rate at which Black folks are organizing,” Brown said, “it will be very hard for us to experience freedom in this country.”