Racism's toll on mental health: 'A lifetime of traumatic responses'

Clinical psychologist Alvin Thomas says people should not "suffer in silence"...
Clinical psychologist Alvin Thomas says people should not "suffer in silence" if they feel like they "just can't cope anymore."(NBC15)
Published: Jun. 11, 2020 at 10:08 PM CDT
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Current racial tensions around the country, mixed in with years of buildup, are putting a toll on the mental health of black people around the world.

“We watched for 8 minutes while a man slowly lost breath, and we heard him cry,” Dr. Alvin Thomas, a clinical psychologist, said about the viral video depicting the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “That can be experienced as traumatic for quite a few people, vicarious trauma.”

Thomas, who also teaches at UW-Madison, has studied racial discrimination under pre-COVID circumstances, finding its link to depressive symptoms and unhealthy eating practices.

“When you compound these recent civilian killings of black people with the pandemic, what I see coming down the pipe is that months if not years after this, we’re going to start seeing people revealing some of these symptoms,” Thomas said.

The Centers for Disease Control has pointed to current data suggesting an over-representation of black people among hospitalized coronavirus patients.

“This is a lifetime of traumatic responses,” Thomas said. “This is finally brimming over.”

Living in Madison as a black man, Joseph Roy said he has been a victim to numerous counts of discrimination and racial bias throughout his life.

“History repeats itself,” he added. “We were taken from some place beyond our will. Now things are still happening, just in a different way.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, he said, “The first thing that comes to mind is disgust because again it shouldn't be happening, and there’s always the anger for the same reason. There’s a little bit of fear of what might happen to somebody, my kids or somebody that I know.”

Thomas explained that it’s “normal” to feel moody, anxious, irritable, hopeless, tired, angry or afraid.

“You’re living through two pandemics, especially if you’re black," he said. "However, if you start to feel like you just can’t cope anymore or that this is becoming too much for you, then I would urge people to not suffer in silence.”

The Black Male’s Mental Health and Wellbeing support group, which Thomas helps facilitate, is one way for people to process. The group meets via Facebook Live on Saturdays