On March 30, 2021, defense attorney Eric Nelson asked Minneapolis firefighter Genevieve Hansen if she and the other bystanders were getting angry and hostile toward the officers present when George Floyd was murdered. She responded, “I don’t know if you’ve seen anyone killed, but it’s upsetting.”
The presiding judge struck her comment from the record and later scolded Ms. Hansen for being argumentative with the defense attorney. While I agree it is important to be respectful to all parties during a court proceeding, her response sparks multiple points.
One, I cannot imagine how truly helpless the witnesses present at the time of Mr. Floyd’s murder must have felt. I certainly recall my own feelings of sadness, anger, fright and helplessness I experienced watching the video of the encounter.
Second, how could anyone suggest that witnesses to a murder be anything but angry watching someone die? It is normal to have emotions including sadness, anger, fear and helplessness when watching a traumatic event in person or vicariously, especially when you identify with a victim or a bystander.
Just last week, I was speaking with minority women physicians about how often Black women have to modulate our responses when we are the target of blatant racism and microaggressions to avoid being labeled an angry Black woman. Black women regularly do not receive validation or empathy for our emotional response to discomfort, loss and trauma.
Third, the Black community has faced trauma after trauma, yet we have not embraced the necessity of mental health treatment to decrease the resulting psychological and physical burdens.
In the United States, 61% of Black children compared to 40% of White children have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience such as violence, abuse or neglect, or growing up in a household with substance abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health (OMH), Black people face unique risk factors for clinical depression including experiences of racism, higher rates of unemployment and financial and food insecurity, and limited access to care, all of which result in an increased burden of psychological distress in Black communities.
Black people are also less likely to seek mental health services due to access and stigmata related to mental illness. Growing up, I heard phrases such as God does not give you anything you cannot handle, suffering makes you stronger, and your ancestors lived in slavery so you can certainly handle x, y or z issue.
Prayer is powerful and I believe God often answers prayers through medicine and health professionals. Seeking mental health treatment does not mean that you cannot continue to pray for healing and grace.
In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Black men ages 15 to 24. In addition, death from suicide for Black men was more than four times greater than for African American women. As of 2018, suicide became the second-leading cause of death in Black children aged 10-14, and the third-leading cause of death in Black adolescents aged 15-19.
While we march for justice for Mr. Floyd and an end to systemic racism, please do not forget to address your own mental health and the mental health of our elders who have carried the burden of these stressors, or the youth who are watching our struggle. Seek professional assistance if your daily function becomes impaired.
Monitor yourself, friends and family members for signs of depression such as a depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day; a marked decline or an inability to experience pleasure; too much or too little sleep; significant weight loss or gain; low energy, impaired concentration, and thoughts of harm to yourself.
These symptoms are consistent with a diagnosis of clinical depression. Untreated depression is a serious condition but it is treatable. Mental health is health.
Together, we can end the stigma surrounding mental health treatment.
Anyone experiencing stress, difficulty coping with a mental illness, isolation or suicidal thoughts: To seek mental health treatment, text NAMI or HELP to 741-741 or call 800-950-NAMI or The Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 or @800273TALK on Twitter. Visit www.fasttrackermn.org/ to find a psychiatrist or mental health provider or www.borislhensonfoundation.org, www.namimn.org.
Dr. Dionne Hart specializes in psychiatry and addiction medicine. She was the inaugural chair of the American Medical Association’s Minority Affairs Section and the first Black woman elected to the Minnesota Medical Association’s Board of Trustees. She is a past Minnesota Psychiatrist of the Year. In 2020, the Minnesota Physician journal named her one of the 100 most influential health care leaders in Minnesota. She is the president of the Minnesota Association of African American Physicians.