‘Where is safe?’: gun violence takes particular toll on mental health of Black Americans

America’s escalating epidemic of gun violence is detrimental to the mental health of millions of Americans. But experts say that Black people, in particular, tend to deal with a specific kind of despair with regard to mass shootings.

This country’s latest incident of targeted violence is emblematic of that crisis. On Saturday, a white gunman shot and killed three Black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, an attack that officials have charged as a hate crime. The shooter intentionally targeted Black shoppers, after first stopping at Edward Waters University, a historically Black university, where he was spotted in the parking lot by a campus security guard.

The Jacksonville shooting is reminiscent of previous mass killings targeting Black people in recent years. Last May, a white gunman killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store, specifically driving to a Black neighborhood to seek out his victims. In 2015, another white supremacist killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and showed no remorse during court proceedings for the 33 federal charges of which he was convicted.

Ongoing exposure to such acts of violence can have a compounding effect on Black people, according to experts. “We do not have a quality infrastructure for supporting Black Americans with overwhelming racism and racialized violence that our communities experience,” said Jessica LoPresti, a psychology professor at Suffolk University. While all Americans are affected by the threat of gun violence, Black people face an additional fear of being targeted due to white supremacy, which can create intense anxiety and stress. “When we talk to white folks about their experiences of violence,” LoPresti said, “it’s unlikely that they are being targeted just because of who they are.”

That threat of being targeted and discriminated against extends to almost every public space, according to Kenneth Hardy, a therapist and expert on racial trauma, and the fear then becomes internalized, especially as hate crimes in the US are on the rise. “Where is the safe place for Black people to be?” Hardy asked. “Not church, not the playground, not the supermarket, not the library, not the university, not the classroom. There’s nowhere. So, there’s a constant anxiety that Black people live with.” LoPresti added that police violence against Black people also exacerbates safety concerns, as many of them feel that calling law enforcement could open them up to additional brutality. “The racialized violence that we’ve seen at the hands of police officers has led Black people in Black communities to feel as if there’s no one we can call,” LoPresti said. “There’s no one, we can sort of trust to value us as much as we value each other.”

Mass shootings like the ones in Jacksonville or Buffalo can also have a cumulative negative effect on Black people’s mental health. Experts noted that the pain caused by any individual event sits on top of grief associated with other instances of racial trauma. “These incidents are not happening in isolation,” said Thema Bryant, president of the American Psychological Association. “We, as people of African descent and Black Americans, live with the intergenerational wounds of racism and recognize the harms that have happened as a result of racism, that are not only historical, but continue today.”

University students, especially those who attend HBCUs, can also experience specific trauma in this regard, with Hardy noting that they may find it difficult to concentrate or have nightmares in the coming weeks. The Jacksonville shooter’s presence at the Edward Waters campus came at a time when several HBCUs across the country have faced bomb threats. “I don’t know how you could feel safe on the college campus, knowing that the shooter came there first,” Hardy said.

Education laws passed in conservative states to prevent the teaching of racism only increase feelings of despair associated with witnessing these hate crimes, said Bryant. In Florida particularly, the Republican governor Ron DeSantis has signed education laws that restrict Black history education, limiting a complete understanding of the violence experienced by Black people historically and today. “It’s not only that outrageousness of racism,” Bryant said, “but the additional layer of that denial and pretending that it does not exist.”

The intense stress of racial trauma has clear mental and physical consequences, though the impact is not officially recognized in diagnostic guides or by many practitioners. Still, experts noted that more medical professionals are starting to recognize the medical effects of racial trauma. And though specialists cautioned that the role of addressing racial violence does not fall on Black people, they also said that they should practice coping mechanisms, including remaining in touch with community members, participating in activism and finding ways to create joy in moments of despair and dehumanization.

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