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How to cope with vicarious trauma caused by videos of police brutality

Demonstrators gather outside Escondido City Hall to protest the police killings of Tyre Nichols and Keenan Anderson, Jan. 29, 2023.
Tania Thorne
Demonstrators gather outside Escondido City Hall to protest the police killings of Tyre Nichols and Keenan Anderson, Jan. 29, 2023.

Many of us spent recent days thinking about the life of a man we never met. And yet, particularly for Black people, know very well. Tyre Nichols was our sons, brothers, fathers and husbands. Before releasing video of five Memphis police officers repeatedly beating and kicking him until he was unconscious and later died, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said she expected us to, "Feel what the Nichols family feels."

While that grief, anger, sadness and despair will never match that of a mother who lost her child, psychologists say all of us can experience vicarious trauma when we bear witness by watching what happened to Tyre Nichols and countless others like him. KPBS Midday Edition spoke to American Psychological Association President Thema Bryant about vicarious trauma. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Did you watch the video?


Bryant: I chose not to watch it. And I also recommend it for people to take pause before feeling like just because it's available, they have to watch it. I think some people felt that they owed it to Tyre or owed it to the Black community to watch. But there are other ways of us honoring and recognizing life besides watching the death.

What are the psychological effects of watching videos like this one?

Bryant: It really can overwhelm our nervous system. So when we think about traumatic stress, that is a deeper level than ordinary everyday stress. So we all carry different roles and responsibilities that can create some level of strain for us. But when we talk about vicarious trauma or other types of trauma, those are the experiences that overwhelm our usual capacity to hope that they can disrupt us and disregulate our nervous system. They can really overwhelm us emotionally, can show up even in our physical bodies. And so once you have the visual as well as the audio to go with it, that can really create a space for more flashbacks and intrusive thoughts where you are replaying that image. And I remember hearing Tyre's mother in an interview say she started to watch it, but once she heard her son say, "what did I do?" she had to stop. And so then, of course, what continues to ring in her mind is both, so what did I do? When she also witnessed seeing his body in the aftermath. And so we want to be careful about the images and sounds that we are holding on to.

And we're talking about vicarious trauma. Can you explain what that is?

Bryant: Yes. So what we understand is even if you are not the direct target of a trauma, bearing witness to it or having someone who is connected to you experience it can also be disruptive and overwhelming for you. So if we're talking about being witnessed, it could be that you were physically present when something happened. But also with social media and all of the various recordings, even watching it online or on television. I remember at the time of 9/11, we would caution people to not keep having the replay of the airplanes going into the buildings with children are in the room. And there is an impact to that, even if you were not the direct target.


Is this vicarious trauma in this case elevated when we think of that brutality happening to ourselves or our Black sons, husbands and fathers?

Bryant: Yes, there is a deeper level of connection when it's not only that I have compassion because this is another human being, but it is another human being who shares my identity. And in many of these cases, the targeting and treatment of this person is connected to their identity. And so that creates a deeper level of connection and also a concern of will I be safe? And so whenever we see the large scale violence against African Americans, Black Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, indigenous peoples, we can consider what stress people end up holding around their own survival and the safety and survival of their community.

That is interesting. What advice do you have for people whose mental health is being impacted from watching the video?

Bryant: I would first say the importance of giving ourselves compassion as opposed to judgment. Sometimes people are hard on themselves and they say, "I don't know why I'm so upset. I didn't even know him." So really respond to yourself with understanding, to know it makes sense and it's a part of our humanity to grieve or be outraged about the violation of another person, and then also the violation of the entire community. After that compassion and kind of releasing self judgment, I would say we want to think about both self-care and community-care. So self-care: sometimes we're neglecting ourselves or we throw ourselves into our work. So taking time to rest, journaling can be helpful for some, use of the expressive arts, listening to music, writing poetry, moving our bodies because we're holding stress in the body, reaching out and making an appointment with your therapist. Talking with family and friends is the part that's the community support so that we don't have to be isolated. There are a number of mental health organizations, including the Association of Black Psychologists, that offer free drop-in support groups or healing circles. Making use of either individual or group support can really be a gift to your mental health.

And then I want to name that justice is therapeutic and we want to be mindful to not just tell people they should meditate and drink water and then not address the systemic issues. We want to care for ourselves and nourish ourselves and then in our different ways and our different disciplines and walks of life to be intentional about continuing to commit our efforts to eradicating racism and eradicating violence and looking towards prevention because those things are very important for our wholeness and wellness.

That leads me to my next question. I mean, is there a balance between being informed, the fight for justice and preserving our mental health in all this?

Bryant: Yes, it's very important that we pace ourselves. And what I like to share with our communities is that common phrase of this being a marathon, right? Not a sprint. So sometimes we are neglecting ourselves and saying we just have to work to make things right. And that strategy could work if we could fix this in a week, right? That for a week I'm going to forget about what I need and just work for justice. But instead, this work of being a change agent, an advocate and activist, this is really lifelong. So we need to pace ourselves. And I think that common phrase of rest, but don't quit. And so our rest and our care is a part of the process, I think. Tricia Hersey has a book called "Rest As Resistance" so that we can know in a country where for Black people, our labor became the equivalent of our worth. Like literally, you had to work nonstop to be worthwhile or to be worthy. And so it's a radical, revolutionary act to say I am enough, that I do not have to be in perpetual motion, always grinding, always trying to prove my humanity.
But instead, our rest is a part of resistance. Our joy is a part of resistance. Which is why I love that some of the protest march, you'll see people breaking out in the electric slide and dancing and singing. So our outrage is understandable and we are deserving of more in our lives than our rage. And so having that joy, loving, relationship loving community, those are also intentional ways that we protect our wholeness.