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Managing the Mental Health Effects of Social Injustice

A young woman holding a cup of coffee looks out the window

For many in our region, an average day can consist of witnessing and experiencing food insecurity, discrimination, or violence. These social injustices are ever-present, yet can remain undiscussed and absent from conscious awareness, leaving those experiencing them feeling invisible. Then there are tragedies so horrific and incomprehensible that they move beyond local and community awareness to national conversation.

This was the case with Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old African-American woman who was fatally shot in March 2020 when officers forced entry into her apartment during a drug dealing investigation. The anniversary of her death reminds us of the painful year of 2020. We are also reminded that we have become more attuned to seeing tragedy and injustice. For example, a devastating home fire may trigger thoughts of inequity. We may notice who receives treatment and testing for COVID-19 and who does not, making us consider differences in access to care. Overall, our awareness has increased.

Social Injustice and Mental Health

It is important to consider the impact of all that we see. Witnessing or hearing about traumatic events can lead to complicated emotions, feelings of helplessness, anger, sadness, shame, and guilt. After experiencing an unsettling, painful event, either personally or through media, many children and adults dream about it. They re-experience the images, sounds, and feelings. People often find themselves replaying in their minds events that disturbed them.

Figuring out the best way to deal with exposure to painful events is complicated. However, Breonna Taylor’s death not only placed a spotlight on social injustice, it also showed us how we can respond to tragic events and how communities can support each other. In response to the loss of her life, people came together; they discovered their personal sense of agency, and they sought support. We can use these same tools to cope with the ongoing stream of painful events we observe in person and in the media.

Avoid Suffering in Silence: Talk About the Experience

When there is pain, many of us tend to withdraw and bury our feelings, but difficult emotions need to be expressed, and supportive relationships and community can help foster that expression. Following the death of Breonna Taylor, communities of varying backgrounds came together to give words to their pain and trauma. The grief and anguish were profound, but these feelings were transformed into words and narratives. People shared their experiences, which others validated.

As we are constantly bombarded with images of injustice and pain, it is crucial to engage our children in dialogue about their feelings, and talk about our feelings with close friends, in journaling, or with a therapist.

Move to Action

Pain can be immobilizing, and when tragedy seems constant, it can result in feelings of helplessness or a loss of agency. “Say Her Name” was one phrase that reverberated on social media. This demand for acknowledgement and justice for Breonna Taylor was a movement from a passive stance to an active stance.

Social injustices are all around us. We must find ways to explore our own biases, educate our children about injustice, advocate for others, and form more connected communities.

Seek Support

More Americans sought mental health support during 2020 and 2021, not only in response to COVID-19 but also because of the tragedies that we collectively witnessed. Mental health became a leading topic, and people began to recognize the urgency of attending to their mental health.

It is essential that we do not become so numb to tragedy that we ignore or attempt to minimize its effects. We all must continue to seek support through trusted relationships or through mental health services. As exposure to pain and injustice persists, caring for our mental health remains vital.

If You Need Help

For more information about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

Tiffany N. Brown, Ph.D.

About Tiffany N. Brown, Ph.D.

Dr. Tiffany N. Brown is a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical faculty member at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her doctorate from Howard University and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Penn Medicine. A practicing psychologist, she seeks to help individuals and couples understand and overcome obstacles and heal from the wounds that interfere with living a fulfilling life. Dr. Brown also works with organizations and teams to provide mental health education via workshops, speaking engagements, and private consultations.