‘It’s traumatic, for sure’: Black men and women discuss feelings, mental health amidst racial justice movement

Updated: Sep. 7, 2020 at 9:14 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Three Black men and women. Three different experiences. Three different feelings. But much of the same pain.

“There’s trauma in seeing a Black man who could have been my brother, my father, and my son having died with a knee on his neck,” Johari Harris, a research assistant professor at the University of Virginia, said.

“As a Black man, you feel like there’s extra weight on you,” Leon Henry, a clinical social worker and therapist, said.

“It’s traumatic for sure,” Paul Harris, a professor at the University of Virginia who helps train the next generation of school counselors, said.

Through protests and social media posts, a show of support for Black lives and calls to end systemic racism and police brutality has been clear.

But Henry says the increased exposure and pressure on Black people to spark change can bring feelings of stress and anxiety as well as the trauma they already feel.

“What I’m seeing is that people just are overwhelmed,” Henry said. “You know, they don’t know what to do. A lot of people I speak to say they want to do something about it, they want to take action, they want to help, but at the same time they don’t know how to do that.”

Paul Harris, no relation to Johari, is a former high school counselor. He knows there’s an issue of trust.

“For Blacks and people of color in particular, history has taught us, well, to not trust those in the helping field, right? And think of the Tuskegee experiment,” he said. “There’s a justifiable reason why there’s a reticence or hesitancy for people of color to access such help.”

The Tuskegee Experiment was an experiment to study the effects of syphilis on Black men without providing any treatment.

That trust is even harder to gain when it’s tough to find Black mental health professionals. In 2017, the American Psychological Association said only 2% of its members were Black.

Henry says trust can be built through good practices.

“When you have good intentions, and you’re there to support people, you’re there with them and trying to share your journey, and you’re available, and you want to learn and you’re receptive and you’re sensitive to, you know, their feelings,” he said, “I think it creates a connection in a relationship.”Johari Harris has done research on middle school-aged Black males and says it’s important to be honest in these discussions with young people.

“We’re having an honest accounting with youth about what the reality is and then helping them develop skills and structures such as critical consciousness to help them kind of address these systems of inequity instead of trying to say ‘oh, well, everything’s fine’” she said.

All three people with whom we spoke said non-people of color have tried to help, but it’s important for them to know that to truly be an ally, they need to respect the wants of each Black man, woman, or child.

“It didn’t always benefit me when some people who I’ve never heard of are sending me texts forcing me to kind of relive these moments,” Johari Harris said.

“I think it’s okay at times to say, ’as much as I want to see this healing take place that I’m going to have to make sure I’m okay first,’” Paul Harris said.

Henry says this moment can be better if a change is made.

“I think it’s important for people just to keep hope,” he said. “Because with regards to social injustice, at least the conversations are being had. And people are being aware. And people are speaking out and trying to do something about this. I think it’s all necessary in order for change to come.”

Henry also shared his belief that talking and connecting with someone is always beneficial, whether it’s a therapist, pastor, or a trusted person in your community.

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