What Police Brutality Does to a Black Parent's Mental Health
"I'm afraid my toddler will grow up to be a ‘threat’ and pay for it. That's not normal."
Photo courtesy of Montye Benjamin
As the summer winds to a close, the number of Americans fatally shot by police continue to rise. The messages about black men, in particular, being shot are so uncomfortably frequent that I've begun to ignore the news all together. It's hard to navigate life in a nation that believes you can't be pro-black and pro-cop. Many believe the fear black mothers like myself have for our children is in vain, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I'm afraid my toddler will grow up to be a 'threat' and pay for it. That's not normal.
Each time we're exposed to headlines and images of those who have died because of police brutality, we're forced to suppress thoughts like "will my child be next?" It's more than a race issue. It's a mental health issue. Research indicates I have reason to believe as a black male, my son has an elevated risk of being killed by a cop.
The threat of police brutality is a fear that looms in the back of every black parent's mind. While this fear is exacerbated by a society that refuses to accept the realities of racism, research paints a vivid picture. A recent look at the rates of those "randomly searched" by the NYPD revealed that African Americans and other people of color are substantially more likely to be stopped and searched despite white people being more likely to be "breaking laws regarding weapons and contraband."
But profiling in policing isn't simply an issue that affects black male adults. There are more stories of black women like Tatyana Hargrove—a 5'2", 115 pound woman who was mistaken for "a 5'10" black man carrying a machete." Research has also shown us that black children are perceived as older than they are: Black girls are seen as less innocent and black males are seen as more threatening, than their white counterparts.
All of these factors affect the mental health of black Americans. We report higher rates of unaddressed mental illness than any other demographic. (Of course, we also have to take into account the lack of access we have to mental health services along with the increase of stressful experiences such as the above discussed.) The looming threat of police brutality affects black parents' ability to parent as compassionately and securely as we can.
According to Erlanger Turner, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown, who studies racial trauma, this ever-present fear has dire consequences on the mental health of black parents. Trauma and anxiety are common in those who have continuously negative interactions with the police.
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One mother, Danette L. Chavis of New York, tells me about how her son, Gregory Chavis, was shot by a stray bullet—intended for someone else—and bled to death on October 9th, 2004. She alleges that police officers called for backup instead of medical assistance that night. And regardless of how much time has passed, she and other mothers who have experienced similar loss suffer from deep emotional issues.
"I've encountered numerous parents who are the victims of depression, suicidal thoughts, and illness resulting from the stress and trauma of having a loved one murdered, fighting to obtain justice, and then being smacked in the face by a denial [of] justice," Chavis says.
Despite having undergone unfathomable loss, Chavis isn't interested in playing the victim, and she instead immerses herself in a life of activism. She been fighting police brutality since the loss of her son in 2004 and founded a grassroots organization in 2014 in response to the epidemic of police brutality and murder across the nation.
"Imagine what it is like to endure all that...you want answers and they're not giving any," Chavis says. "Then imagine seeing his face plastered in the media alleging him to be a criminal and hearing police, and those who support them, proclaim he deserved to die. And after all is said and done, and they conclude their investigation, you are told that no wrongdoing has been found."
So many mothers live in perpetual fear that someday, their child will either be harmed or neglected by the police. "Black mothers carry concern for their sons being negatively impacted by police behaviors and may grow increasingly hopeless. Increased exposure could lead to more anxiety and may result in increased restrictions on their children," Turner explains.
This stress also affects black parents' ability to parent effectively while preserving a nurturing relationship. Traditionally, black parents are known to have a more authoritarian parenting style, I believe that this style is necessary in order to prepare your children for the stressors of growing up black in America. Each instance of brutality puts myself and other black parents under pressure to double up on the control of our children. We are often accused of being harsh, but our parenting style is an act of love, in hopes to reduce the effects of systemic injustice on our children.
Turner backs me up: "Research has often finds that black parents engage in a higher rate of authoritarian parenting, which involves highly directive and more power asserting behaviors. However, authoritarian parenting may serve as a protective factor when it comes to shielding black youth from contact with police."
In an effort to assist some of the parents and her local community, Chavis organizes to assist those who struggle to afford mental health services. Chavis works with other black parents like Montye Benjamin, 54, from Dekalb County, GA who deals with paralyzing fear over the last few years. At times this fear leads to crying spells and anxiety about the safety of her other child after the loss of her youngest son, Jayvis, who was unarmed and had no criminal record, and shot by a cop in 2013 when he was 20.
"I have panic attacks whenever I would see a police car or officer. [For] the first two years, it felt like I lived in a tunnel only viewing what happened from a distance, and it was my sister and son who did most of the information-collecting and correspondence with law enforcement, coroner, and district attorneys," Benjamin says. "I still, to this day, feel like my son is away on a trip or I will look at the front door waiting for him to return or visit. Since my son's death I get about two to three hours sleep and sometime none at all."
But what should individuals affected by police brutality-related anxiety, for themselves or loved ones do? Turner says those affected should be honest and open with their families and support systems. "One thing that's important is for parents to deal with their own emotions before talking with their children or behaving in a way that will increase their children's anxiety," Turner says. He points to a resource the American Psychological Association has recently developed a resource called, "Racial ethnic socialization" that helps provide parents with the effective tools to discuss racial issues with children.
First and foremost, Turner emphasizes that adults who have been or are close to someone who's been affected by racially-charged police brutality should seek help from mental health professionals. Otherwise, unresolved trauma has the potential to affect not only parents but children. While nothing can blot out the grief families experience when they lose a child to police brutality, Turner encourages them to develop strong ties to positive aspects of black American culture. Prioritizing activities that provide stress relief is an effective option for families having trouble dealing with grief, depression, and loss.
For Benjamin, these activities include staying busy with volunteer efforts and being surrounded by a community of mothers with similar experiences have been the 'lifeline' that helps with coping. Chavis finds relief through her activism work and her organization, where she hopes to minimize the number of families that have to experience this form of trauma.
"Another way to help cope with the stress is to create a plan that involves stress management activities for the family. This could include making time to have a family game night, family outing to events, or spending time engaging in healthy activities such as exercise. Having options for self-care and stress management are important especially when dealing with repeated exposure to stressful events," Turner says.
The weight of police brutality should not fall solely on the shoulders of the black community. Turner says that police officers can assist with this issue by taking a more collaborative approach to community policing. Ideally, having a more open dialogue with police officers and more of a sense of involvement from the black community would decrease the long-standing anxiety around police relations.
But the resistance from both sides runs deep. I want my son to grow up in a world where I don't have to worry about him being a target at such a young age. He deserves a normal childhood—which seems a freedom that is becoming harder and harder to afford.
Correction: A previous version of this article states that Chavis' organization assists parents who are dealing with the emotional trauma associated with losing a child to brutality. The organization instead addresses the epidemic of police brutality and murder across the nation.
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