Antiracism

Mental Health and the Aftermath of Police Violence

Much of the national conversation around social justice for victims of police violence focuses on law enforcement reform. Police departments and local governments across the United States have responded with several new initiatives.

For instance, a mayoral task force in Baltimore, Maryland proposed that the city equip 100 of its officers with body cameras in a pilot program. This proposal comes in response to outcry over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Gray’s death led to protests and calls for police reform alongside demonstrations in Ferguson, Cleveland, Chicago and other cities across the United States.

Freddie Gray’s hometown of Sandtown-Winchester represents a number of communities in the United States in which similar incidents of police violence led to protests and police reform.

DeWayne Wickham gives a glimpse of the residents and their relationship with law enforcement:

More than half of the people (ages 16-64) in this area are unemployed. In 2012, 49% of its high school students were “chronically absent,” 61% of the population 25 and older lacked a high school degree, and a third of this community’s houses were vacant. Even more disturbing, it has more people in Maryland’s prison system than any other community in the state. Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $17 million a year to keep 458 people from this Census track in prison, according to a recent Justice Policy Institute report.

In addition to police reform, the city has also made a concerted effort to provide mental healthcare resources for members of Freddie Gray’s community.Acknowledging the mental and emotional effect of Gray’s death, mental health practitioners in Baltimore seek to help residents cope as they continue their lives in the aftermath of violence. As the _Baltimore Sun _reports:

“Our clients generally have limited resources and limited access to care,” said Barbara Anderson, executive director of the Pro Bono Counseling Project. “So many of those people who were directly affected by what happened in Baltimore should be our clients. These people have so few resources and that’s why they are so distressed. We want to help.“

The effect of police violence in Freddie Gray’s community demonstrates how racial and economic inequality affects one’s physical and mental wellbeing. “As a psychologist working with college students in the DC metropolitan area, I have had a chance to observe how students of Color are affected by the unrest in Baltimore,” notes Dr. Carlton Green, a psychologist at the University of Maryland. “In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, I’ve talked with dozens of students from Baltimore who live with constant worry about their neighborhoods and the safety of their loved ones.”

Dr. Green believes these students may be experiencing post-traumatic stress: “They experience sleeplessness and difficulty concentrating, as well as guilt related to being away from home at such a critical time.”

Unfortunately, people from these communities face various barriers to access to mental healthcare including residential segregation and economic disadvantage. As Dr. Green notes, “It is rare that the trauma response of people of color make the news headlines. Instead, the focus is generally on the violent and the victims of violence.”

Indeed, much of the response to cries of injustice within communities affected by police violence have led to law enforcement taking steps to reform their policies and procedures. Though these efforts to reduce police violence will hopefully lead to fewer incidents, a broader conversation about mental health access must begin. As Dr. Green notes:

The community members, who witness the violence, are presumed to be unaffected in the long run. The accumulation of these types of events, coupled with mental health stigma among people of Color and the legacy of racism that has minimized pain experienced by people of Color, almost guarantee that the pain will continue.

Why does addressing racial and economic inequality in our healthcare system matter? 

One reason is the relationship between social justice and healthcare access. If race and socioeconomic status determine mental and physical wellbeing, good intervention programs must acknowledge that disparities exist in order to provide a reasonable and appropriate response to trauma.

Another reason is to that race and economic inequality relates to education, income, and health. Professor Jonathan Purtle writes:

A lack of income may increase disaster exposure by creating communities in hazardous, and thus inexpensive, areas and also increase mental health vulnerability by serving as a chronic stressor.Low-education may also decrease employment opportunities, causing some to seek self-sufficiency in the illicit economy.

These various forms of inequality when combined, make people’s lived experience particularly difficult. In the absence of adequate access to healthcare, people often end up within the prison system. This appeared to be the very case with Freddie Gray, who suffered from lead poisoning and was deemed “incapable of leading normal functioning” life as a result, ultimately facing over a dozen arrests before his death.

Baltimore serves as an example of how to local governments can help their residents move forward from police violence. This takes access to financial resources and a commitment on the part of government officials to respond to their community needs.

However, the effort to improve mental healthcare access has not fallen on local and state governments alone. Nationally, the Affordable Care Act has succeeded in starting to bridge the gap in access. According to the White House:

Because of more than $100 million in funding from the Affordable Care Act, community health centers have expanded behavioral health services for nearly 900,000 people nationwide over the past 2 years. 

Efforts to improve mental healthcare access will better equip people exposed to police violence, but mental healthcare access must not end with community residents alone. As recent research shows, officers with PTSD are at greater risk for police brutality. Thus, the problem of mental health and police violence not only affects all involved.

As members of communities, law enforcement, and government officials try to rebuild in the face of police violence, mental health must be a central part of the conversation. Mental healthcare for officers must be part of this conversation as well.

Some police departments have taken steps to better equip their officers with knowledge through crisis intervention training. Such programs aim to teach officers to assess the situation and deescalate when confronted with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Overall, the link between mental health and police violence is complex. It represents larger social issues about inequality in the healthcare and criminal justice system. While members of Sandtown-Winchester must contend with devastating loss of Freddie Gray, barriers to adequate mental healthcare only serve to reinforce rather than reduce the violence that affects this and similar communities.

However, as the progress Baltimore makes in the face of these events shows, the answer to resolving police violence not only includes reform of current practices and procedures used by law enforcement, but also providing mental health resources to support grieving members of the community.

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