Is Extreme Racism A Mental Illness Killing Black & Brown People?
Michael Brown. Photo Credit: Huffington Post
In August 2014, I developed a severe case of writer’s block after Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager was shot and killed by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. I felt that my blogs and social media musings were frivolous. I wrote a long essay about the anger and pain that I felt caused by the loss of another unarmed Black person’s life taken at the hands of a White police officer. Each time that I was going to publish the blog, another unarmed Black person was killed by police and I felt it necessary to include them in my blog; which had initially been about the loss of one life. However, what happened to Mike Brown, would ultimately become the national stage in which a spotlight would illuminate the eerie frequency of unarmed Black people being killed by police. So many deaths were reported that it was difficult to keep track and it became a numbing, almost monthly and sometimes weekly haunting reality in the media during the past three years. Since 2014, there have been almost 130 unarmed Black men, women and children killed by police based on The Guardian’s “The Counted” database. Another horrifying statistic from “The Counted” is the number of Native Americans killed by police as well. Also, Gawker.com provides a list of Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, from 1999-2014.
It’s mind boggling that in a “developed and democratic” country like the US, unarmed American citizens are treated with such animus. African Americans appear to be killed so easily by a minority group of officers who are suppose to “serve and protect” all lives and there is little to no accountability, infrequent justice and more political lip service than policy reforms when they are killed. When I initially drafted this Blog almost three years ago, I had several dear friends and colleagues who are published and seasoned writers read what I wrote. All of them gave great edits and suggestions. However, one writer in particular said “if you are going to write about something related to this issue add value to the conversation. Say something that no one else or few are saying.” So I decided to take his advice and instead of publishing something about the now countless deaths of unarmed Black people, especially Black men, killed by police, I decided to channel my energies into exploring the psychological impacts of these murders and how they impact our psyche as a nation. Along with the state of Black mental health and the impact of racism.
I am inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Black lives matter and so does the mental health of Black people. As I reflect back on 2016, it was a year that the mental health and emotional wellbeing of African Americans were thrust into mainstream media.
In hospital: Kanye West’s hospitalization last week was the result of a ‘nervous breakdown’, triggered by the anniversary of the death of his mother according to a new report. Photo Credit: Getty Images. Source: Dailymail.co.uk
From Kid Cudi announcing that he checked himself into rehab in October 2016 for “depression and suicidal urges”, to Kanye’s mental breakdown in November 2016, to songs like “Cranes in the Sky” by Grammy Award winner Solange, and even episodes of the critically acclaimed HBO series Insecure that highlighted therapy; we were finally talking about mental and emotional wellness; which has traditionally been a stigma in the Black community. I too am grateful to have a hand in this endeavor. Last year, I completed my certification as an Integrative Wellness & Life Coach and appreciate the wisdom and knowledge shared in a candid conversation that I had with Los Angeles based psychologists Dr. Yoshado Lang and Dr. Carrie Schwimmer. Watch the video below to hear our discussions about the need for more mental health support in the Black Community and within law enforcement. We explore many solutions, including therapy, counseling, group coaching, public service announcements (PSAs), free workshops and healing forums that can be offered to the community and to police departments nationwide to make a difference. Please comment and share.
Whether its societal pressures from institutionalized racism, PTSD related to historical traumas like enslavement passed on in genes per a 2016 Teen Vogue article, racial bias and brutality by police, hate crimes by White supremacists, or normal emotions like grief, hormonal imbalances or anxiety… it’s ALL real and per the American Psychology Association (APA), it’s adversely impacting all Americans, especially African Americans. The APA actually provides resources for coping with anxiety caused by the incessant media reports about police shootings. “Taking a break from the news and limiting how much news children watch are among the recommendations for coping with stress and anxiety related to the onslaught of police and civilian shootings, as well as terrorism attacks, according to resources posted on the American Psychological Association’s website.” Click here for more information. Although it might be a helpful resource for some, it’s a privilege to be able to turn off the TV and avoid seeing or hearing about such atrocities. However, for many Black and Brown people they have to live with the constant anxiety and reality of such daily threats to their civil rights and personhood.
Moreover, I would be remiss if I did not mention the “Black Superwoman Syndrome” that is killing so many African American women too. I cannot imagine the mental toll and emotional weight being carried by the mothers, girlfriends and wives of those who have been killed by police and have yet received justice. Or not to mention the emotional stress and worry African American mothers and fathers feel at just the thought of their child’s possible interaction with law enforcement.
In my research for this blog I came across this question from a Google search: “Is Extreme Racism a Mental Illness? Yes! It can be a delusional symptom of psychotic disorders” per Alvin Francis Poussaint, M. D. an African American psychiatrist well known for his research on racisms’ effect in the black community. In one of the final articles published in the the Western Journal of Medicine in 2002, Dr. Poussaint wrote: “The American Psychiatric Association has never officially recognized extreme racism (as opposed to ordinary prejudice) as a mental health problem, although the issue was raised more than 30 years ago. After several racist killings in the civil rights era, a group of black psychiatrists sought to have extreme bigotry classified as a mental disorder. The association’s officials rejected the recommendation, arguing that because so many Americans are racist, even extreme racism in this country is normative—a cultural problem rather than an indication of psychopathology.
The psychiatric profession’s primary index for diagnosing psychiatric symptoms, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), does not include racism, prejudice, or bigotry in its text or index.1 Therefore, there is currently no support for including extreme racism under any diagnostic category. This leads psychiatrists to think that it cannot and should not be treated in their patients. To continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy. Clearly, anyone who scapegoats a whole group of people and seeks to eliminate them to resolve his or her internal conflicts meets criteria for a delusional disorder, a major psychiatric illness.
Extreme racists’ violence should be considered in the context of behavior described by Allport in The Nature of Prejudice.2 Allport’s 5-point scale categorizes increasingly dangerous acts. It begins with verbal expression of antagonism, progresses to avoidance of members of disliked groups, then to active discrimination against them, to physical attack, and finally to extermination (lynchings, massacres, genocide). That fifth point on the scale, the acting out of extermination fantasies, is readily classifiable as delusional behavior.
As a clinical psychiatrist, I have treated several patients who projected their own unacceptable behavior and fears onto ethnic minorities, scapegoating them for society’s problems. Their strong racist feelings, which were tied to fixed belief systems impervious to reality checks, were symptoms of serious mental dysfunction. When these patients became more aware of their own problems, they grew less paranoid—and less prejudiced.
It is time for the American Psychiatric Association to designate extreme racism as a mental health problem by recognizing it as a delusional psychotic symptom. Persons afflicted with such psychopathology represent an immediate danger to themselves and others. Clinicians need guidelines for recognizing delusional racism in all its forms so that they can provide appropriate treatment. Otherwise, extreme delusional racists will continue to fall through the cracks of the mental health system, and we can expect more of them to explode and act out their deadly delusions.”
Thanks to groundbreaking films like GET OUT directed by Jordan Peele, awareness is broadened and mainstream conversations are increasing about the generational traumatic impacts of racism and other emotional stressors. But conversations aren’t enough… and a teacher’s words from a leadership course that I am taking echo in my mind… “without confrontation, there can be no resolution”.
As a nation we need more opportunities to confront racism as an institutional framework of our country’s foundation and present power, like the recent conference Harvard University hosted (“Universities and Slavery: Bound By History“). Per an article in The Huffington Post, the event “aimed to unpack the university’s own past involvement in the institution of slavery.” More importantly, we need institutions like Harvard University affirming calls from voices like Ta-Nehisi Coates, the keynote speaker at the conference, who addressed the need for institutions to pay reparations from benefiting from ties to slavery. In the words of the Oscar Award winning rapper/actor Common, “Forever Begins” with acknowledgement, apology, amendment and atonement.
The definition of amendment (a change made
by correction, addition, or deletion) and atonement (“satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends”) are two key factors often not addressed at such forums; therefore no real systemic change can occur. The mental illness of racism and the exploitation of people who are disenfranchised by it will only persist if people in power and institutions continue to ignore it’s impact and avoid taking action to be held accountable for their roles and responsibilities to fellow American citizens.
The following is a excerpt from the Greater Good Science Center at University, California Berkeley “Long before Officer Darren Wilson fired the shots that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, questions of racial bias have hovered over the criminal justice system in the United States. While the problem has been increasingly well documented, so far the solutions have proved elusive. Many recent studies suggest that our attitudes and behavior toward other people—particularly, but not only, people of color—are often guided by deeply ingrained judgments that operate below the conscious level. These judgments can betray prejudices that we didn’t even know we had, which makes them especially difficult to control. And in the heat of the moment, they can have tragic consequences. The good news is that there are steps we can take to reduce implicit bias.” Click here to learn more about the work of the Greater Good Science Center in action.
It is my vision that 2017 will be the year that we make mental and emotional health a priority for not only the Black community, but our nation. Like Trevor Noah shared in an interview with the Breakfast Club, “racism is a disease”, and as Dr. Poussaint stated “extreme racism is a mental illness”. Yet, since racism is going untreated, hate crimes are on the rise and racist people, many of whom are White, are killing Black and Brown people. Some question if racism can be cured and I believe it can be. Also, real police reforms can be achieved too if police departments and mental health professionals come together to create systemic changes around training, especially de-escalation and how to work with people who are mentally ill. Please share and message me with ways to provide solutions to treat racism and police shootings; which a Harvard University study considers a public health epidemic and should be treated as such.