June 4, 2020 — It’s a reality that Black Americans have long grappled with, and recent events like the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the disproportionate deaths of Black Americans as a result of COVID-19 have brought the issue into stark relief for non-Black Americans as well: Structural racism persists in institutions across the United States, and its result is inequality at every level.
Doctor Gator spoke with Atlanta-based adult, child, adolescent and forensic psychiatrist Sarah Vinson, M.D. ’07, founder of both the mental health practice Lorio Psych Group and Lorio Forensics, which provides consultation in criminal, civil and family court cases. The 2018 UF Outstanding Young Alumnus, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Morehouse School of Medicine and adjunct faculty member at Emory University School of Medicine discussed the trauma Black Americans face and its impact on mental health. She also offered suggestions for coping with this generational trauma, as well as tips for non-Black Americans to best serve as allies to the Black community.
Sarah Vinson, M.D. ’07, in the George T. Harrell, M.D., Building during the 2nd annual UF College of Medicine Celebration of Diversity in 2018. Photo by Jesse S. Jones
Doctor Gator: Can you explain how the endemic problems of racism and inequality in our country — exemplified most recently through instances of police violence against Black Americans — affect the mental health of the Black community?
Dr. Vinson: It is traumatic to put it simply. Trauma is defined as something that threatens your sense of safety in the world. To know that not only can you be harmed, but you can be harmed by people with state-sanctioned authority who are tasked with protecting you and your community is a form of trauma. This can feel inescapable and with no remedy. If the police are the ones who are hurting you, then who do you call?
Doctor Gator: What are some common emotions and symptoms that many Black Americans deal with on a daily basis?
Dr. Vinson: What I’m seeing is fear and sadness, which aren’t mental illnesses. They’re responses to the situation. It’s important to differentiate between anxiety and fear. We talk about anxiety as an illness based in people overestimating their risks. Their minds are perceiving threats that aren’t real. Fear is based on living in a world where you’re not safe.
Mental health practitioners who don’t understand what targeted and oppressed people experience often look at their patients’ emotional responses without looking at the societal context that those people are responding to.
Doctor Gator: How have recent events like COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis exacerbated these existing issues?
Dr. Vinson: There is variability in news cycles and in how and when this is brought to the national consciousness. As a Black person who is conscious, this isn’t new. This isn’t shocking. Some have the luxury of paying attention to this sometimes, but Black people don’t.
It’s come to a head, and COVID-19 has contributed to it in some ways. Black people are dying from COVID-19 in a disproportionate amount. People are seeing how deadly structural racism can be, and this came on the heels of it.
Doctor Gator: What suggestions for coping do you recommend for Black Americans, keeping in mind that the mechanisms and conditions that form the root of their issues may not change in their lifetime?
Dr. Vinson: We know that people do better when they have a sense of purpose, when they are supported and when their feelings are validated. It’s important that people are honest with trusted individuals in their lives about what they’re experiencing.
When it comes to microaggressions, people cope better if they do something, if they don’t just passively receive it.
These issues are so large and pervasive that every single one of us, regardless of what sector we work in or position we hold, can do something. We can take power where we have it. Maybe you can’t stop structural racism yourself, but you can look at the structural racism in the organization you’re a part of. I can teach about racism in my medical courses. I can make it part of my child psychiatry training program. I can be a support and mentor for my Black medical students.
There’s a quote from Arthur Ashe that I find very grounding and helpful. “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
Also, we have to take care of ourselves as we’re fighting. This is not going to be fixed in five days, five months or five years, so be kind to yourself, understand that your advocacy may look different and you can take time to rest.