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“America is Anxious”: Experts Discuss Mental Health Toll Of Unrest

Man holding hands in heart shape
Last week's Capitol riot has many feeling anxious. Experts say the anxiety is amplified for Black Americans who experience racism and are often denied the ability to express frustration. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In the aftermath of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, images juxtaposing the law enforcement response to that event and to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer began circulating on social media.

Pictures and firsthand accounts describe a setting with remarkably slim law enforcement presence, especially in comparison to protests for racial justice this summer that drew riot police and National Guard units. While containment and mass arrests were employed to protect Confederate statues in Richmond, the Capitol Hill rioters were able to blow by a small number of Capitol police who were slow to receive backup.

There’s a connection there that can’t be ignored, says VCU professor Dr. Faye Belgrave. She calls it revictimization, and says it reminds people involved in the summer’s protests of injustices they’ve faced.

“So you’ve been victimized, you’ve been harassed in many situations during peaceful protests,” Belgrave said. “You just can’t help but compare the reaction to what happened [in D.C.].”

Belgrave is the director of VCU’s Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention, a program with the goal of understanding racial inequities in health and care. She says we’ve known for some time that images of racist violence have an adverse mental health effect on Black people. 

She cites a dissertation from one of her former students. That study, from 2016, found that Facebook and Twitter increased “anticipatory race-related stress” - anxieties about future experiences of racism - among young African Americans. Belgrave says those feelings are a known cause of mental health issues.

And this summer, data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed a sharp increase in reported anxiety and depression among Black Americans in the week following the killing of George Floyd. But last week’s events in the Capitol highlighted a different experience.

“This just naked anger - and white privilege, I might say also - that we didn’t have the luxury to exhibit,” Belgrave said.

The distress is real for many Americans - not just people of color - Belgrave says, noting the rioters were targeting the seat of American democracy.

Dr. Shawn Utsey is another professor at VCU. He researches the impact of race-related stress on the well-being of African Americans. Utsey says last week’s storming of the Capitol had “racial overtones, not undertones,” but agrees with Belgrave.

“All of America is anxious right now,” Utsey said. “Black people’s anxiety levels are managed by us being inoculated by the repeated experiences in which we have been on the cusp of experiencing great harm. So that’s where we live.”

He says that events like Wednesday’s help people understand what Black people have known forever - that everyone is adversely affected by white supremacy.

“Now we’re talking about, we’re all in danger,” Utsey said.

Utsey says he would encourage students, and all people, to do something that they feel can make a change for the better - protesting, activism or otherwise.

“I always knew that this agency - taking action - has therapeutic value,” he said.

Belgrave says that “this is not the time to be without support,” whether that’s through social circles or with a professional. She points out that many mental health professionals have taken their practices online during the coronavirus pandemic, which could be helpful for some looking to connect.

“When there’s that trauma, shock, anxiety, it’s gonna slow you down a bit and and you’re gonna have to kind of recapture your strength,” Belgrave said.

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. And the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.
The Richmond Behavioral Health Authority has a crisis hotline at 804-819-4100, and non-emergency services available here .

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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