How Black Youth Can Take Care of Their Mental Health After Racial Violence

By LaKeisha Fleming

Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. Daunte Wright. Tyre Nichols. Just reading those names probably made your stomach churn and chest tighten, or brought tears to your eyes. It’s hard to process stories of Black people being beaten, maimed, or killed. And it happens with frightening regularity. 

You brace yourself, because you know more information—or a video—is coming. You already know how it’s going to end, and you know watching it or reading more about it will be traumatic. 

At the same time, you may feel pressure to watch, to be a witness, to not turn away from what is happening to your people and community. 

This is the tug-of-war—between staying up to date with current events and protecting your mental health—that so many Black people face in this world of racial violence and social media. 

How Watching Racial Violence Can Affect Your Mental Health

Reading about racial violence or watching videos and images can lead to feelings of helplessness, frustration, and fear, and have a very real impact on your physical, mental, and emotional health. 

We all know that, but a 2018 study found that when Black people watch the killings of unarmed African Americans, they experience increased fear of being the victim of violence, greater awareness of racism, reduced trust in established social institutions, anger, and flashbacks of their own painful trauma. And those symptoms lingered for months.

So how do you strike a balance that lets you protect your mental health even as you recognize the reality of what is happening? 

Here are 5 things that can help.

Know That You Do Not Have to Read or Watch

It’s OK to choose which content you want to watch or read. If you decide not to, you may wonder, Am I still supporting the fight against racism? Am I still staying up to date with what’s going on? Is it wrong not to watch? Am I being selfish?

Those questions are normal, but you don’t have to watch violent acts to know they are wrong and take action against them. You can still be focused on the mission and support the cause while protecting your own mental health.

Pay Attention to How You Feel

If you decide you want to read or watch, pay attention to your reaction and acknowledge what you’re feeling. Pretending you’re OK doesn’t make difficult emotions go away. They have a way of letting themselves out. 

Shock, outrage, disgust, and fear are all normal responses. So are grief and anxiety. And so is feeling numb, which is a way to protect yourself and a byproduct of being repeatedly exposed to something traumatic.

Struggling with those emotions may cause you to feel physically ill, with muscle aches, headaches, and nausea, but processing those feelings helps you release them in a healthy way. 

That could look like writing in a journal, talking out how you feel with a friend or family member, or just letting loose with a long cry. Not only is it OK not to be OK, but realizing that truth also helps you process—and move through—your feelings.

Take a Digital Break

If the temptation to read or watch—or keep reading or watching—is too strong, give yourself a break from your computer and phone. Taking several minutes to an hour or more can give you a chance to do a mental reset. Redirect your focus while you take a break. When you decide to go back to social media, make a plan to protect yourself. 

You can block sensitive content, both online and on your digital platforms. On social media, you can block or hide an individual who is sharing content you don’t want to see. But if your friends are sharing it and you don’t want to cut them from your feed entirely, both Instagram and Twitter offer settings that let you hide sensitive content. For online searches, you can change your settings to block unwanted content. 

Take a Physical Break

It can be hard to escape images that continually play in your head, but a few things will help:  

  • Go for a walk to clear your head and take mental pictures of the beauty you see in nature. 
  • Watch a light-hearted movie or TV show to help you laugh. 
  • Try a guided meditation or let loose with a dance routine.
  • Do an activity that brings you joy or helps you relax, such as drawing, painting, coloring, shooting some hoops, or playing chess. 

The goal is to give yourself a break from the images and the difficult work of processing them, and to release the stress and tension in your body.

Find a Safe Way to Deal With Thoughts That Won’t Stop

You may realize you can’t stop thinking about the violent images you watched and that they are affecting your normal life. Here are some signs you could benefit from structured or professional support to help you move forward. 

  • Changes in how you are sleeping or eating (doing more or less of either)
  • Unexplained or prolonged sadness
  • Irritability or moodiness
  • Feeling anxious or fearful

These issues can all be signs that what you saw is impacting you on a deeper level. If you’re struggling with symptoms like these—or any other signs of depression or anxiety—don’t be afraid to ask for help

Start with someone you trust, who will be a source of strength and support as you work through your feelings or find professional help. It can be a close friend, a parent or older family member, a brother or sister, a teacher, a coach, or a spiritual adviser. If you’re open to it and want to seek help on a professional level, you can research support groups with people who share your experience and want to talk about it. One-on-one therapy can also be really helpful. 

Learn how to find a culturally competent therapist who can help you process the trauma of race-based violence.

If all of these suggestions seem overwhelming or even scary, that’s OK. Sometimes it can feel safer to talk to someone you don’t know at all. 

  • Make an appointment with your school counselor or campus counseling center.
  • Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.
  • Connect to the TeenLine. You can text TEEN to 839-863 every day from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. PT (9 p.m. to midnight ET) to reach a trained peer counselor.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, including a substance misuse or suicide crisis, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use their chat function

Do what is best for your mental health when you’re confronted with violent media images. Tapping into your emotions, owning those feelings, and taking the steps you need to protect yourself are what matter most.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.