Brandon Jones remembers when he first learned about the death of George Floyd.
"My first reaction was numb, actually."
Jones wasn't sure how to feel, he said. He was horrified. He was angry. But it didn't feel like something new. "It reminded me of other killings of other unarmed Black people, specifically Black men,” Jones said.
Jones is Black and 6-foot, 7-inches tall. “I'm aware that my physical presence sometimes evokes fear in people," he said. When he watched the video of Floyd’s death, the Sturbridge resident realized someone could feel threatened by him, and call the police. "And knowing that it wouldn't take much for me to end up with a similar fate,” he said.
While the death of George Floyd resulted in a national discussion and for many, a reckoning - over issues of systemic racism in America, many people in the Black community were traumatized by what happened. For many, it brought up powerful memories of racism in their own lives.
Jones is a licensed mental health counselor. As he worked through his own feelings about what happened to George Floyd and what it meant, he helped others do the same.
“There were some subset of folks who the shock of it, you know, and the overwhelm that came with it was fairly destabilizing for them, traumatic for them,” he said.
Some were emotionally drained by white people reaching out to them, Jones said. He even had a few of his white patients checking on how he was doing, which felt weird, he said.
To work with his clients, Jones said he had to put aside his own anger, and his skepticism that anything was going to get better. “But what that also does is it reminds me of how much I have to put away."
The social media barrage of videos showing police violence against Black people can feel never-ending, said Viola Dean of Allston. And as a Black woman, she said, she already knows what's in them. So she hasn’t seen the video of George Floyd’s death.
"For me and my choice not to watch the videos, it comes from a place of protecting myself and my mental health,” Dean said. “I know that it will not be good for me to watch those. I can just cry, just thinking about what happens in those videos."
Dean worries the videos can normalize the violence in them, or numb people to it. She said a lot of the time, it seems like the people sharing videos like this online are white.
"I do think a lot of times it's a matter of intent versus impact,” she said. “And allies and advocates are attempting to bring justice and call attention to something that is totally wrong.” But they may not be thinking, she said, about the mental health impact on those who have experienced racism in their own lives.
A 2019 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found more frequent exposure to traumatic events online was associated with higher levels of PTSD and depressive symptoms. In 2018, a paper in the Lancet studied people’s mental health following the police killing of unarmed Black people.
"And we found that actually there were worse mental health outcomes in the 90 days after the police killing of an unarmed black American amongst black Americans,” said the study's lead author, Jacob Bor of the Boston University School of Public Health. “We found no such impact amongst white Americans.”
The killings just weren’t felt by white people in the way they were by Black people.
And while that’s probably also true of the death of George Floyd, something does seem different this time, said Dr. Omar Reid, president of the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts. Until now, Reid said, some people of color have felt White people didn't believe them about the racism they face. "They thought a lot of Blacks were just exaggerating,” Reid said.
But the video of Floyd's death shined a light not just on that one incident, but on systemic racism more generally, Reid said. “So a lot of them talked about how a lot of their white colleagues and friends came to them, 'Man, I'm so sorry I didn't realize this happened to you.'"
Reid said there’s a need for more mental health clinicians of color. He talks about one new client of his — who previously had a white therapist — and who found that the Floyd murder was bringing back memories of a bad experience he had with police decades ago. "He felt that his therapist couldn't understand why he would have issues now based on an issue that happened 30 years ago,” Reid said. “So he decided, 'You know what, I need to get a black male therapist who maybe understands what I'm going through. '"
Black kids have been hurting this year, too.
Keith Mascoll works with Black and brown teenagers in a nonprofit arts program he runs calledThe Triggered Project. The students write about their lives, including their experiences with racism. He said they’ve been writing about George Floyd.
"And they're clearly, of course, angry,” he said. “And also scared, that's a huge thing, just scared because they feel like there's a target on their back.
One of those young men is 18-year-old Christ Hander-Geffrard of Cambridge.
"They say that we’re dishonest. But I tell the truth to whoever and wherever I go,” Reid wrote in a monologue as part of Mascoll’s program. “They call us thieves, but I would never steal from anybody. They say that we're violent, but I wouldn't hurt a fly. They call us all these things. But they don't know us."
Racial trauma is a real thing, and it needs to be treated, said Dr. Janet Helms, Director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College. "Just like you would treat someone for depression or anxiety, you need to treat someone for racial trauma, too,” Helms said.
Racial trauma isn’t in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the official manual that mental health care providers use to make diagnoses. But Helms said it should be. "I think clinicians need to be trained to recognize the symptoms and to treat people,” she said. “The best way that that can happen is by putting it in the official literature of our professional societies."
Helms said there also needs to be more mental health resources available to treat people who are suffering from racial trauma.
But it's not enough, she said, to just get better at treating the mental health impact of a murder like George Floyd's. "What are we doing to make sure that this doesn't happen again?" Helms asked.
The way to really fix the problem of racial trauma, she said, is to prevent the trauma from happening in the first place.