Impact of racial violence, police brutality on mental health in communities of color

The murder of George Floyd and violent deaths of other Black Americans not only sparked cries for justice, but also calls for help to deal with trauma, anxiety, and depression. Particularly, among the Black community.  

Dr. Bernadette Smith with Aspen Counseling and Wellness in Houston says people who witness violence first or secondhand can experience feelings of fear, depression, anxiety, or hopelessness.

"We're seeing this brutality played out on television, on social media, at a wide scale and it's done over and over and over again," she noted.  

She adds it can also spark trauma.

"I'm noticing both clients but also family, friends, etcetera is this vicarious trauma," Dr. Smith added.  

People, she says, can also experience collective guilt because most are empathetic.

"You might be able to see somebody else, see a loved one, in that [situation]," Dr. Smith explained. "If you experience trauma yourself, it can then bring up some of those images from the trauma that you might have experienced as well."

For Dr. Smith, it did.

"Joshua and I grew up together. Joshua was actually my brother's friend growing up," she recalled.


Joshua Johnson was killed by an undercover Harris County sheriff's deputy in Missouri City on April 22, 2020.

According to officials, Johnson was watching over his sick neighbor's house, noticed a strange car in the neighborhood, and approached it with a BB gun.

The undercover officer opened fire and shot Johnson multiple times.  

Dr. Smith remembers how Johnson was killed just a month or two after Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

"By the time George Floyd hit,  I was emotionally drained," she emphasized.

Dr. Smith sought therapy herself, like many in the Black community.

Just a week after murder of George Floyd by police, the Household Pulse Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found Blacks reported increased symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Alelia Watson, a professional counselor with LiaSon Counseling Services, says more men of color began looking for help. 

"I actually had an increase in minority men because they don't know how to cope with this. They don't know how to deal with this. It's a real fear for some people. It's like, 'hey if I get pulled over, what could possibly happen to me?'' Watson noted.

She says the first step in coping is allowing yourself to experience your feelings.

"If you continue to try to suppress those emotions or act like it's not happening, it's going to officially explode," Watson pointed out.


Next, she recommends limiting what media you consume.  

"Self-care can be, 'hey let me not get on social media for one day out of the week, so I can focus in on myself and my family members,'" Watson explained.  

For Dr. Smith, limiting time on social media and other forms of media is also about self-compassion.

"It's not saying to kind of put your head in the sand and act like nothing's going on," she explained. "But it's about, 'Is me consuming this media beneficial for where I am right now in my mental space?'"

Another way to cope, for some, is engaging in activities, such as rallies or marches.  

"Sometimes when you experience grief, it makes you feel like you're the only person," Dr. Smith added.  "But, then when you see that there are other people who think and feel and connect on the same level, it can bring solidarity."  

For coping with an immediate crisis, Dr. Smith recommends taking deep breaths or other grounding techniques.

"One grounding technique that I like that's super simple is five things that I can see, four things that I can feel, three things that I can hear, two things things that I can taste, one thing that I can smell," she explained.

She adds it is key to know when to reach out for support. She also notes depression can manifest differently in people. In men, she notes, it can look like feelings of frustration, irritability and anger.

"If you start to notice a disruption in sleeping patterns, if you start to notice rumination, so thinking about the same thing over and over and not being able to get over that hurdle of thinking about that. These are some of those indicators that okay, there may be something deeper going on and I need to reach out for support," Dr. Smith concluded.

Mental Health Hotlines & Resources

Mental Heath America of Greater Houston 

The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD 


Crisis Intervention Hotline of Houston 


LGBTQIA+ Switchboard Houston 

24 Hour Helpline: 713-529-3211

United Way of Greater Houston Helpline 

2-1-1 or 713-957-4357

281-342-HELP (4357)