PTSD and Police Violence: A Conversation With Columbia Psychiatry’s Dr. Suarez-Jimenez
The death of George Floyd focused the attention of the nation on the long standing problem of police brutality against Blacks. This issue has had deep impacts on not on only our country and our communities, but on the mental health of countless Americans most particularly young Black men and their families. We spoke with Dr. Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology, from Columbia University’s PTSD Research and Treatment Program about the mental health effects that this has had on individuals and communities throughout America.
Columbia Psychiatry: PTSD is usually associated with soldiers that have seen combat, but how can it affect people outside the military?
Dr. Suarez-Jimenez: People outside the military sometimes don’t realize that they have been exposed to traumatic events, and in so they don’t recognize that they might have PTSD. Traumatic experiences are where you feel your life (or the life of a close loved one) is in danger. For example sexual assault, domestic violence, car accidents, or even some natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. No matter how or where you experience these traumas, PTSD makes people more reclusive, depressed, they have difficulty sleeping (usually because of nightmares associated with the traumatic experience), and very hypervigilant of their surroundings. Patients with PTSD might stop taking care of themselves, working effectively and efficiently (leading them to lose their jobs), they withdraw from their friends and family (feeling isolated), and they become somewhat paranoid of potential dangers (so they might mainly stay at home and distrust everyone). At the end of the day, PTSD affects people inside and outside the military the same way, unless treated.
Columbia Psychiatry: With the recent protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, there has been a great deal of attention surrounding police brutality. How can a violent encounter with the police affect a person?
Dr. Suarez-Jimenez: It is a very difficult situation. On the one hand we are supposed to trust the police and legal system to take care of us, but when that trust is broken it has a huge impact in our moral, spiritual, and mental wellbeing. The difficulty is that since we don’t know how each individual police officer feels or thinks it is hard to separate one police officer from the other, so it is very easy to overgeneralize our distrust of police and the justice system. In part, this is also hard for police officers trying to keep the peace and to uphold the law. Because they are the center of the public eye right now they have a higher pressure to do their job well done.
The problem is when police officer (unaware or aware of racial biases) escalates situations based on prejudice and stereotypes. So if we see a police officer mishandling a situation how can we as bystanders or as victims do anything about it without causing more trouble, breaking the law, or getting harmed? I think this is a huge struggle that society is facing right now and it is eating our moral compass, do we help or do we walk away? And witnessing an assault or a violent encounter from a police officer or any other individual can be as traumatic for the bystander as for the victim. Mainly because of the feeling of being powerless to do anything.
Columbia Psychiatry: Can individuals in the communities affected by this, who see their friends, neighbors, or family have violent encounters with the police experience PTSD? If not how does that affect them?
Dr. Suarez-Jimenez: Of course, even if your friend or family comes home and tells you the story of how they encountered (or observed) a violent encounter with the police, this could cause PTSD. You don’t have to experience it to have PTSD. Learning about it from a family or close friend, or witnessing it can have a strong impact as being the victim. These actions have waves of victims that are not seen or heard.
Columbia Psychiatry: What kind of psychological affect do these incidents have on police officers? Both the ones involved in incidents and those who are not?
Dr. Suarez-Jimenez: This is a difficult questions because it depends, does the police officer truly feel remorse or not? And I don’t mean saying they do to get a lower sentence or apologize to keep their job. I mean do they truly recognize that they acted wrong? We all have internal biases based on the media we are exposed to, the society we grow into, and the teachings of our schools and family. We all have to recognize that we are biased sometimes and that these things affect our judgement. If we recognize that, we can work on those to improve our biases and act differently when encountered with those biases. If a police officer believes in white supremacy, then they might take pride in it regardless of the consequences. If a police officer is unaware of their biases, and after acting in a way that they never thought capable of, reflected on their actions and realized that they are biased and that they were wrong, this can truly be a traumatic event for them.
For example, many soldiers have to point their guns at civilians when in a war zone, even this simple act can be traumatic to both the military personnel and the one being pointed at. Sometimes we have to do things that we disagree with, and sometimes we do things we never thought we would or could do. And these events are the most traumatic, when you feel you lost control of yourself or of the situations. So for those police officers that act with bias and later recognize it, this can be traumatic. So this is an important moment to recognize that we all need more bias awareness, and more tools to deescalate situations. For those police officers who are not involved this can be very stressful, again as they are under constant pressure and monitoring from society to see if they are real monsters, to see if they would act the same way. But I think this is the moment for police officers to truly take a moment to reflect on their own biases whether they have acted incorrectly or not.
Columbia Psychiatry: Can communities get PTSD from seeing these incidents happen to their members, even if they haven’t personally witnessed it or know the person involve?
Dr. Suarez-Jimenez: This is another difficult question because technically the definition of PTSD requires you to have experienced or witness the event, or for a close friend or family member to have experienced it. And it has to be life threatening (perceived or real). This makes me think of cases with patients with cancer or heart attack where your life is in real danger but the technical definition of PTSD would not consider these traumatic events for PTSD. The same thing happened with 9/11, where many people saw the news and videos, but if you did not see the towers get hit or fall, or lost someone, or knew someone who escaped the towers, this would not count for diagnosis of PTSD. This doesn’t mean that many people developed paranoia, fear, anxiety, depression from these events. But they would not be treated necessarily as PTSD.
Columbia Psychiatry: How does seeing violence, such as what happened to George Floyd, affect people in general?
Dr. Suarez-Jimenez: I think many of us are affected by these situations happening over and over again. Where many biases exist on culture, sex, race, sexuality, religion, etc. and with people with power don’t do anything to support them or abuse groups based on differences, this can affect our mental wellbeing, our emotional peace, our sense of security/safety. It is not surprising that many people are angry, frustrated, anxious, and sad knowing or thinking that this could happen to them or their loved ones any time.