The Effects of Racially Motivated Police Brutality Videos on Mental Health.
Written By Yasmin Al-najar
TRIGGER WARNING: Police brutality, Violence, Lynching, Mental Health
* Some of the individuals interviewed and mentioned within this article have had their names changed in order to protect their identities. *
We are all familiar with horrifying videos of police brutality aimed at members of the black community circulating the web. They are everywhere. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. Some of us watch the videos and then press the share button. Although this may come from a well-intentioned place in order to spread awareness, on the other hand the sensitive content of these videos does not make them social media ‘friendly’. Meaning that the repercussions of seeing these videos could be negative, particularly on individual’s mental health.
I remember having a conversation with a group of people about whether sharing these videos is the right thing to do after psychologists and advocates spoke out about the damaging effects of this kind of content. None of them saw a problem with it if it was to raise awareness. But, none of them were black. So, I decided to interview people from the black community about their thoughts on the matter. These are my findings from multiple conversations concerning the effects of police brutality videos on members of the black community being shared online for everyone to see.
When I asked twenty-two-year-old Deborah what her thoughts were on people stating that these videos ‘raise awareness’, she expressed “we deal with enough outside and inside the digital world. Workplace racism, blackfishing, tokenism, institutional racism, we don’t need another form of trauma. We need change and action and neither are delivered by sharing a painful video. Sharing videos is just slacktivism.”
Similarly, Christina revealed that she ends up repressing her emotions when she sees these videos because she is “expected to continue [her] day as normal” after watching.
It’s important to remember that most people don’t scan social media specifically searching for videos of brutality. But we do end up finding at least one that automatically plays when we weren’t mentally prepared for it, and this can have a huge impact on someone’s mental health.
Christina told me;
“George Floyd, Jacob Blake. It’s just one brutality after another. I can’t help but think that could have been me. I remember Twitter automatically playing the video of Jacob Blake being shot. I sat there and cried and cried as if I had lost a family member.”
Videos of black people, and most typically black men, getting killed at the hands of white police officers is something we all see on our devices. With each new video that surfaces, identifying a different victim, previous victims get pushed to the back of your social media timeline and are often forgotten. Similar to when people took part in #blackouttuesday on 2nd June 2020, posting black squares and hash-tagging Black Lives Matter on social media platforms such as Instagram. After that day, it no longer was a trend. But the death of anyone, particularly race related deaths should not be a ‘trend’.
Undeniably, these videos have highlighted the racial injustice black people face every day, calling attention to the necessity for institutional change. But what is troubling is that there is a need to provide evidence and validate the cries of those being oppressed. This is why so many people video events of police brutality because they fear that they won’t be believed. Even though throughout history, black lives have been treated as lesser in comparison to white lives, and this attitude still continues today through racist political polices, the justice system, and the media’s power to vilify them.
The perverse fascination with black trauma is not a new thing. From roughly 1877-1950, white men would organise an event where they would lynch black men. After they were tortured for hours and eventually killed, white families would take photographs next to their dead bodies and print the photographs on postcards. Lynching was not only violence against black people, it was a sport, a form of entertainment. They exchanged lynching postcards like how we now would trade Pokémon cards.
The same way those photographs on postcards were used to terrorize, humiliate, and inflict pain on the black community, the videos uploaded to social media of police and white supremacists murdering black people have the potential to elicit the same effects, whether it is the intention of the sharer to inflict pain or not. Not everybody who watches these horror videos would understand the social injustice involved and share them in disgrace.
I interviewed people from different disciplines of psychology to ask what they thought about sharing and consuming videos of black trauma. Alisha, a neuropsychology and child psychology graduate explained that repeated exposure to distressing videos like the ones we see on our timelines can trigger mental health issues such as PTSD, anxiety and depression.
Aisha, a psychological wellbeing practitioner also observes that these videos will be traumatising for both those who have been through a similar act of violence and those who can identify with the victim. She raises the important question of whether the victim and their family members would approve of the video being shared. The answer is that it is highly unlikely because of the dehumanisation of their loved one within the video.
Marwa, a clinical psychologist masters graduate explains that when we see these videos we can experience vicarious trauma and react to them as if we had witnessed it on the street in front of us. “The neural pathways in our brains have been primed to feel hurt and anger and to associate the police with violence” she told me.
Omar, who is from the UK, raised an important point;
“Every time I see a video of a cop and a black man, I automatically assume the worst. When I get pulled over, I freak out. Police brutality isn’t an American only problem.”
Sharing these distressing videos does not save black lives or stop them from being targets of racial abuse. Instead it normalises the consumption of black trauma and death, meaning we become increasingly desensitised to the issue.
Rather than circulating videos we need to stop and think about the impact these videos might have if they are shared. Instead write a post about how the video made you feel. Share resources that will help the black community, buy from black owned businesses, donate to bail funds or the Black Lives Matter Movement. Do something that will facilitate change. If we want to be an ally, we should listen to the communities that we are trying to help.