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Stop and search on social media – dealing with the trauma

Psychotherapist and director of London Counsellors, Sabrina Williams, talks about the trauma of recent events, and how constant viewing of violent images and videos can impact us

The recent events of the coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd case have made us question the way that our police ‘police’ us. This is a reminder of the importance of StopWatch’s work. StopWatch is an organisation focused on keeping the police accountable, and keeping us safe.

At this time, we are led to pause and reflect on the type of society that we live in now, and what we would like it to be like in the future. Police brutality and bullying are not new themes: they are features of the system, and are as old as the system. However, globally there have been protests and action, which indicate that all people stand united together against the abuse of power, racism, and injustice.

For many, this has been the first time that they have had to face up to and acknowledge the fact that the police can abuse their power, position and privilege, acting in ways that are beyond wrong. The police perpetrate inhumane, monstrous and brutal actions, to the extent not only of humiliating and dehumanising people–especially Black people–but also victimising them to the point of death.

For others, this was a deep reminder of their own experiences with this imbalance of power, as well as a reminder for many that their lives counted for less, were valued less, are protected less and mattered less, hence the rise in the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.

With many people around the world in varying stages of lockdown, consuming large amounts of social media has become the new normal.

Whilst social media has its merits, the amount of negative, violent and traumatic images being shared without a warning title is having a profound and devastating impact on mental health. Viral videos of killings, harassment and disproportionate stops and searches of Black people have become the main topic of social media. Whilst these videos can be necessary to inspire action and the conversation for social change and justice, seeing these negative images can affect the psychology both of those who look like the victims in the video, and those who do not. The effect of seeing images of people being humiliated, dehumanised, bullied and killed is very traumatising, and also has the potential to reactivate past trauma.

Here are some questions and reflections many will have at a time like this:

  1. I want to know what is going on, but watching the videos has been tough. Am I avoidant or racist if I don’t want to keep seeing it?
  2. It is hard to cope, seeing so (many?) negative images; what should I do?
  3. Why am I so affected by what is on the news or social media?
  4. I feel that being Black or an ethnic minority means I am disproportionally affected; is this true?
  5. If I don’t like the system, should I be doing something to change it?
  6. What can I do if the recent events have been disturbing to me?
  7. What good is talking about it–I have spoken to my friends and family already. What difference will counselling, therapy, or talking therapy make?

1. I want to know what is going on, but watching the videos has been tough. Am I avoidant or racist if I don’t want to keep seeing it?

When it comes to violent and disturbing images of any event, such as recent images of police brutality, it can be not only traumatising, but also re-traumatising. This reactivation of trauma stems from seeing content that takes us back to our own personal negative events or experiences and trauma. The event, circumstance or experience may have been different to what we’re seeing, but the feelings of injustice and pain may be the same. Others, however, may have a different experience of viewing these events, in that they may find the images freeing. Freeing in that it might be the first time that they are able to see events similar to their own experiences put into images or words, and thus it allows them to have the conversations they have been unable to have with people before.

2. It is hard to cope, seeing so (many?) negative images; what should I do?

I would always advise people to have some kind of outlet; seeing any type of distressing image is going to bring feelings that are difficult to manage. They might trigger previous experiences of trauma and pain. Sometimes friends and family can be helpful, or social spaces. However, when you go to those spaces and you’re speaking to family and friends, they will have their own feelings about these videos or images. If this is the case, they may not be able to give the fullest space for people to talk about their experiences, which is why I always recommend therapy.

3. Why am I so affected by what is on the news or social media? 

One of the things I often try to have clients think about when they mention what is happening on the news or social media is “how does it make me feel? how does it link to my personal life? What are the feelings coming up?”. I want them to take time to reflect on that, because when people are watching this, they may think it's just about George Floyd, but it’s actually also about all the experiences that they have had in their lives in which they felt the feelings they are feeling now. Feelings that come up again, when they see negative stories about the coronavirus deaths, or murders like George Floyd’s, or (prominent stop and search victims’ stories). When we are affected it is because we can identify with what happened and the feelings associated, which are hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, and what it’s like to be discriminated against, or to experience unfair power dynamics. This is my experience when speaking with both Black and white clients.

4. I feel that being Black or an ethnic minority means I am disproportionally affected; is this true?

Statistically, the BAME community was disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. We also know that those who are Black or of an ethnic minority are over four times more likely to be stopped than a white person. This statistic is then compounded for those who identified as Black or Black British, with an even greater disparity, as they are 9.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched by an officer than a white person would be. Holding this in mind, and then seeing all the recent videos and images of police brutality, and incidences where people are being killed or attacked because of the colour of their skin, then brings up another type of trauma. It leaves someone of this community feeling as if there are under threat from multiple angles – biologically, culturally, socially, and politically. It leaves someone with the feeling that all systems are set up not to look after and protect them, but to destroy them, and it is very scary and sad. This can lead to an overall feeling of “this is not fair”. Why me? Why, as a Black person, am I disproportionately affected by all of these negative influences? That creates a trauma effect, which can result in feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair, leading to negative thoughts and behaviours towards oneself and others.

5. If I don’t like the system, should I be doing something to change it?

Yes; however, there are many burdens that people carry in times like this: am I doing enough? I am exhausted, am I doing too much? Should I change careers to one that makes a direct difference? Should I be protesting? Should I be donating?

Whilst all of the above is impactful, it is important to take on board that we all handle things in different ways. Whilst it can be very empowering, and can bring a feeling of achievement to be part of the fight by being out there protesting, donating, posting on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, it is also important to notice if you have not been able to be active in these ways or in these conversations. This is because it may indicate that you have been traumatised. We have all had different experiences and for some, the recent events will open up old wounds and bring up past negative feelings. Let us, therefore, be a little bit more gracious with each other, and reach out to those that we might judge for their silence. Let’s start to have small conversations as well as big ones, reducing the hierarchy of which efforts are better. Getting out there by protesting, donating – those are all very good things to do, and they do make a difference. But if we get in touch with how we feel, what we think and how we have acted, we can then start to have meaningful conversations that change us and those around us. It is at this time that we must equip ourselves with knowledge, and start to consider and challenge prejudice, racism, internal racisms and microaggression in our daily lives, as well as the systems that discourage equity.

If we haven't really had the conversations with others and with ourselves that we need to have to change our internal thinking, then when we encounter situations in the future, we won't act differently, and so no change will occur.

6. What can I do if the recent events have been disturbing to me?

If you are at the point of asking this question you have already taken the first step. Acknowledgement is very powerful, because until you do, you may not have understood that the state of your psychology and thus behaviour has been impacted because of it. This trauma can manifest in symptoms of anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, loss of appetite, emotional overeating, extreme mood changes, rumination, nightmares and flashbacks.

Having just a few of these symptoms could be negatively impacting the life that you are currently living, and the life you want to have in the future. The second step, therefore, would be to find a way to release the feeling and emotions you have been holding that keep you locked in that trauma. There are many ways to do this, but not all of them are positive; our recommendation is to talk to someone trustworthy, who can understand, and who will not belittle your experiences. Friends and family can be a good place to start and they may be able to offer some release, although often they will be having their own thoughts and feelings about the event, and may not have the most space or capacity to support you in the most helpful way. Due to this, we recommend a service like ours, London Counsellors, professionally qualified Counsellors, who are trained to be patient, to listen, and to respect what you have to say.

7. What good is talking about it – I have spoken to my friends and family already. What difference will counselling, therapy, or talking therapy make?

Holding on to experiences and negative images without processing their impact can lead to feelings of heaviness and mental fatigue. Talking about it can be useful because making sense of experiences from the past or present can help release the trauma, lessen the impact on day to day life, and increase the mental capacity to keep going.

It can be very powerful and empowering to have your experiences validated and understood by someone who is non-biased and does not have a vested interest. Sometimes the horrors that we have experienced or viewed, and the feelings and emotions that we have as a result can be too much to share with those around us, and therefore a counsellor can be a better option. Counsellors are professionals trained to listen, have patience, and offer comfort; they are trained to understand and hear the worst of life’s challenges and experiences.

If you have more questions about counselling or therapy, then check out our FAQS or book a free 15-minute consultation in which you can ask any questions you may have. We are currently offering sessions via Zoom or telephone.

Sabrina Williams

Director of London Counsellors

London Counsellors is proud to support the work of StopWatch, an organisation that provides support and advocacy for the most vulnerable in our society

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