When video footage of 25-year-old Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police was publicly broadcasted in 1991, it shocked the nation. A year later, in 1992, the acquittal of the four officers who had been caught on camera brutally wielding their batons against King’s body led to historic protests — Los Angeles burned for six days, and dozens of people lost their lives.
Sadly, that wasn’t the last time a Black person would be injured — or killed — by police. What we didn’t know 30 years ago was that the Rodney King footage was just the beginning of us being subjected to video after video of police brutality against Black people.
Over the last 30 years, the world has witnessed so many more have their lives taken by police: Mike Brown Jr. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Eric Garner. George Floyd.
And now, Tyre Nichols — a 29-year-old father, son, artist, photographer, and skateboarder.
Nichols died on Jan. 10, three days after a traffic stop with five Memphis police officers left him in critical condition.
In preparation for the expected Friday evening release of the bodycam footage of what the now-fired officers did to Nichols, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis warned it might be “the same, if not worse” than what was seen on the King tape.
“You’re going to see acts that defy humanity. You’re going to see a disregard for life,” Davis told CNN This Morning.
It’s safe to say that what’s about to be released could be traumatizing for many. Research shows that Black folks, in particular, are vulnerable to mental health decline after witnessing such assaults.
A study published in 2018 found that watching a police killing of an unarmed Black person leads to poor mental health for African-Americans, with the worst effect taking place one to three months after exposure.
Another paper published in 2020 showed that witnessing police brutality had a lasting impact on Black and Hispanic youth. After exposure to local police violence and shootings, high school students experienced lower grades and rates of graduation and emotional disturbance.
Overall, exposure to trauma is impactful and can lead to mental and physical health problems without recovery.
That’s why Word In Black reached out to Brandon Jones, a psychotherapist and executive director of the Minnesota Association of Children’s Mental Health, to find out how to cope with the stress of witnessing police brutality.
1. If you don’t think you can watch the video, that’s OK.
If you’re invested in the story, Jones thinks, “it’s good for you to get a glimpse at what happened.” But if you feel like you can’t bear to watch the footage, Jones recommends not viewing it.
“It’s not something that you have to watch to understand what is going on. You can read the newspaper article clips. If there is a trial later on, you can watch the trial later. But I don’t think that it’s recommended for people to watch, especially if you’re just at a point where you can’t continue to deal with things like this.”
2. Before watching the video, try to find out the full story.
While it isn’t always possible to know all of the details of a police brutality incident — such is the case for Nichols — Jones recommends digging up any information that you can get ahold of before pressing play.
Knowing more about the situation might help you to process it better.
“Oftentimes when these clips are floating around social media or people are asking, ‘have you heard it?’ and they want to show you on their phone, you get a small snippet of what happened,” Jones says. “And that can lead your emotions all over the place without full context.”
3. Choose the best way to process what’s happening.
Identify the best way for you to process the tragedy and its aftermath.
“Sometimes, it’s more than one way for people, but you know, I often suggest to manage your social media. And how much are you investing into the stories and into the conversations around what’s happening? If it’s too much of an investment, pull it back. If you feel like you’re not getting enough, figure out those good spots for you to have dialogue that helps you process what is actually happening.”
4. Talk to your circle or a professional.
Open up to your circle of support: the people you trust or even tell some of your secrets to. They may be aware of what’s happening, and you can be your authentic self with them, Jones says.
But don’t feel limited to people you know. Reaching out to a professional is also an option.
“Sometimes things are so overwhelming that you do need kind of a third party — someone who doesn’t know you, who doesn’t really have a real bias — help you process through some things that are going on,” Jones says.
He recommends considering “a licensed mental health professional…a life coach. It could be a spiritual leader. It could be a consultant. It could be someone who helps people problem solve and get through tough times.”
If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, substance use or mental health crises — or another form of emotional distress — call 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is staffed by trained counselors.
For more information on free mental health services near you, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org.