We’re having the wrong conversation about Charleston and mental health

There's a entire community being ignored—and it matters.


Derrick Clifton

Internet Culture

Published Jun 25, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 11:51 am CDT

Every time a white man is at the center of a mass shooting, there’s a tendency for news coverage to question his upbringing, family dynamic, and political ideologies—as well as his mental health status. It’s a pattern seen in the cases of criminals like James Holmes, Elliot Rodger, and most recently Dylann Roof.

Aside from the stigma of directly associating murderers or terrorists with people who have a mental health condition, there’s another downside to rushed speculation about a killer’s sanity. The exclusive focus on a criminal’s mental health ignores the anguish experienced by the communities affected by their actions. In this case, the Charleston shooting was an act of anti-black terrorism, with the perpetrator deliberately leaving behind a survivor to share his message of hate.

The families, friends, and church congregation left behind by the nine killed at Emanuel AME Church aren’t only grieving the loss of loved ones. Many of them—and countless others elsewhere—must also endure the added stress, strain, and psychological burden that comes with the territory of enduring everyday racism as black people. And the Charleston tragedy is another reminder that black people aren’t guaranteed physical, mental, or emotional safety in a climate where racial oppression remains normalized at every turn.

There’s been little-to-no conversation about the mental health of African-Americans at large, who navigate a daily deluge of news coverage on the Charleston attack itself, in addition to the constant stream of unarmed black people brutalized or killed by white police officers and vigilantes. For roughly three years, there’s been a Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, Tanesha Anderson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner a Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, or Mya Hall almost every week. 

The Charleston tragedy is another reminder that black people aren’t guaranteed physical, mental, or emotional safety in a climate where racial oppression remains normalized at every turn.

And, sadly, that’s only to name a few. Their names often become trending hashtags, yelled into the streets amongst a chorus of #BlackLivesMatter protestors or cried out by families at press conferences and demonstrations.

In a single moment, nine names were added to that list. Nine more communities who lost another black person at the hands of white supremacy and institutional racism. Many black people everywhere are grieving for the families of the victims and with the Emanuel community. As James Baldwin once wrote, “to be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” And, for many black people, there’s an often unspoken, but constant state of mental and emotional pain as they process the deaths of their skinfolk.

Speaking to Jenna Wortham at the New York Times magazine, Monnica Williams, a psychologist, professor and the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities, detailed the devastating effects of race-based stress and trauma:

It’s a natural byproduct of the types of experiences that minorities have to deal with on a regular basis. I would argue that it is pathological, which means it is a disorder that we can assess and treat. To me, that means these are symptoms that are a diagnosable disorder that require a clinical intervention. It goes largely unrecognized in most people, and that’s based on my experience as a clinician.

Williams also told the Times that black people near and far experience vicarious trauma, because something that affects someone miles away can sometimes affect an entire race of people. 

In addition to a mental health context, this also operates politically, as explained by the concept of linked racial fate. As University of Connecticut professor Evelyn Simien wrote in a 2005 study in the Journal of Black Studies, “linked fate is the recognition that individual life chances are inextricably tied to the race as a whole.” In other words, most black people feel they’re all in this together, due to their racialized status and common experience of encountering racism in everyday life.

That’s where therapy, indeed, could be helpful for black people. But given the racial disparities in employment access, economic opportunities, and healthcare coverage, many black Americans simply can’t afford quality mental health care. For those who can, however, there’s the reality that many therapists aren’t culturally competent about the struggles black people face or may make statements that reveal an implicit bias about people of their racial background, otherwise known as microaggressions.

Most black people feel they’re all in this together, due to their racialized status and common experience of encountering racism in everyday life.

Williams told the Times that racism isn’t a reality to many people in the medical community because they lead very privileged lives. “Research shows that African-Americans, for example, are optimistic when they start therapy, but within a few sessions feel less optimistic and have high early dropout rates,” Williams said. “If the patient feels misunderstood or even insulted by the therapist and they don’t go back and get help, they end up suffering for years or even the rest of their lives for something that is very treatable.”

Whether it’s a life situation, or a conflict that’s linked to issues of racism in America, mental health care is for black people, too. But the media’s representation of the issue creates the false illusion that mental health, psychiatry, and therapy are only issues for “white people,” as was repeatedly said by both Lucious and Cookie Lyon during an episode of the hit show Empire, in which one of the characters in the predominantly black ensemble has a biploar disorder diagnosis. 

It’s a perception that’s far from TV fiction. It’s a perception that mirrors real life for black people, both socially and even in the medical field—because they’re seen as strong and overreliant on faith, and not needing mental health care.

So, God forbid, if there be another discussion of a racialized killing of a black individual, especially at the hands of a white criminal, let’s decenter the narrative of the deranged white killer and recenter the mental health of black people. Race-based trauma and stress is but another layer on the social and institutional violence black people live through, and it deserves way more air time.

Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for The Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice.

Photo via Arturo de Albornoz/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 25, 2015, 7:40 pm CDT