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Psychologist discusses toll injustice takes on Black people

LOS ANGELES — Police brutality, daily protests, systemic racism, unemployment, looters destroying property, COVID-19, stay-at-home-orders, the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, black men (Malcolm Harsch and Robert Fuller) found hanging from trees. The list is seemingly never ending.

All of these recent violent events targeting Blacks have happened within a short span of time, but there are thousands of similar stories reported over and over again on the nightly news, online, or in newspapers — with outcomes that are considered unjust to black people.

Psychologist Erlanger Turner was asked recently what effect continuous injustice has on a black person’s psyche.

Turner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and is qualified to speak about the psychological effects of violence and racial trauma, the perception of police bias in communities of color, and talking with children about racism.

Turner, 40, earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University and his bachelor of science degree from Louisiana State University. His latest book is titled “Mental Health Among African Americans.”

Turner recently agreed to answer questions about the physiological and psychological impact of racism and how it creates a daily stressor for Blacks who are trying to cope with their anger and anxiety.

DONLOE: The events of 2020 (COVID-19, unemployment, alleged lynchings, and all the police killings) have been devastating and have left many African Americans feeling anxious.  What is the invisible danger for people internalizing all of this negativity? 

TURNER: Given what we know from research, when people experience this level of stress and dealing with encounters of systemic racism they are more likely to experience many different mental health consequences including anxiety, depression, decreased life satisfaction, and possible trauma due to witnessing police brutality. 

DONLOE: What does it do to our personal psyche and our collective psyche to watch someone die the way George Floyd did at the hands of a police officer on camera? 

TURNER: What we know from research is that when community members witness these types of incidents they often report higher levels of PTSD symptoms and depression, specifically in the Black community. 

DONLOE: What is this doing to people mentally and internally?  

TURNER: This is something that I discussed in my book. Community violence or collective trauma can have a negative impact on an individual’s mental health. This was recently captured in some new data published by the CDC on the increases of anxiety and depression symptoms in Black people.

DONLOE: What are some ways Black people can cope with taking in all of this negative information? 

TURNER: One thing that must be considered is taking a break from the media, which includes things like Facebook and Twitter. When you constantly consume so much negative information or images of police violence it can increase stress levels. It is also important to practice healthy self-care such as eating healthy, exercising, and getting adequate sleep. 

DONLOE: Do African-American men deal with trauma and negativity differently than African-American women? If so, in what way? 

TURNER: I think so. What we know is that men are more likely to hide or internalize their emotions and feelings. This may prevent them from being able to process their anger and sadness. Men are also less likely to go to therapy to work through some of these emotions compared to women.

DONLOE: What does it do to African-American women to continually see their men being brutalized and killed by police and vice versa? 

TURNER: I think that it can increase fear and worry about their safety. It may also be difficult to know what you can do as a partner to help them.

DONLOE: What should parents be sharing with their children about what’s going on with COVID-19, police brutality, killings and lynchings?  At what age should they talk to their children and should they be brutally honest? Are there things parents should not share with children?

TURNER: Parents should have an age-appropriate conversation about what is going on. They should not show them the images of these brutal incidents. They should also try to instill hope that things will change. One way to have a healthy conversation around racial injustice is to use books. 

DONLOE: What can happen to someone who is unable to cope with this kind of stress and anxiety?

TURNER: It really is important to find a healthy way to cope. Otherwise, it can lead to continued mental health difficulties or using unhealthy coping strategies such as using substances to self medicate.

DONLOE: What are some coping skills people can use to deal with what’s happening in society? 

TURNER: This is something that I have discussed on my podcast (https://soundcloud.com/drearlturner/ep-23-covid19-self-care). A few things that may be useful for coping include making sure that you maintain a social connection with your family and friends through things like group chats or video calls; you should make sure that you take a break from consuming too much media or news around these incidents, and it is great to learn a new hobby. Another strategy may be using meditation. 

DONLOE: Is this moment in history a game-changer? 

TURNER: I hope that things will lead to some actual change. We have been in this place before but this time it seems a little different and more allies are in support of systemic change.

DONLOE: What are the overall results of decades of systemic racism?

TURNER: Research has shown that discrimination and racism has a negative impact on mental health and self-esteem. We also know that intergenerational trauma or the impact of trauma experienced by our parents and grandparents may also impact our psychological functioning. Furthermore, repeated exposure to discrimination also has an impact on physical health and leads to increased risk of heart disease.

DONLOE: Black people have been marching and protesting for what seems like an eternity. Has it all been for naught? What else can we do?

TURNER: I think we have made some progress although we continue to experience systemic racism and oppression. I think we have to continue to mobilize and advocate for policy change at the state and national levels. We can’t just march and protest.   

DONLOE: Do you think there will ever be a time when racism is not the norm? In your opinion, will it ever be eradicated?

TURNER: I try to be hopeful about that but we know the history of how America came to exist. The only way we can eradicate racism is through policy changes and for people to change their anti-racist attitudes. That will be the hard part.