Personal Health

Ferguson Activists Are Struggling with Mental Trauma Long After Police Abuse During the Protests

The effects of being on the receiving end of hyper-aggressive policing can be devastating.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Johnetta Elzie rose to national prominence as a leading protester in Ferguson last summer. Her activism protesting the police shooting death of Michael Brown has been highlighted in national publications like the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, but the police aggression and the intensity of protesting nonstop took a serious toll on her mental health. During the height of the protests, she was tear-gassed at least nine times, faced off against menacing police dogs, regularly confronted by aggressive law enforcement officers, and spent many nights running away from cops. A rubber bullet struck her left collarbone during one protest.

“It was just crazy for me to see the police responding to us like we were almost at war. Only we weren’t armed,” Elzie, a native of St. Louis, told AlterNet. “There was the constant threat of almost dying. In August, I thought I almost died at least twice when we were on the run from police.”

She had never seen a mental health professional prior to Ferguson, but had four sessions with one during the protests. Elzie’s therapist told her she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I thought only people who have experienced war could have that, but just from what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen, she said that I definitely have it,” Elzie, 25, said.

Mental health professionals in St. Louis County told AlterNet that the hyper-policing of local law enforcement during the protests, the tear-gassing, blasts of rubber bullets, the sight of Brown’s body lying on the street uncovered for hours, and the strain from the personal sacrifices many of the protesters made in order to be in Ferguson, could have devastating long-term effects that potentially include depression, anxiety and PTSD.

“People are shocked when I say that we’re going to be dealing with this for at least another decade,” Marva Robinson, a clinical psychologist and president of the St. Louis Chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists, told AlterNet. “Post-traumatic stress disorder has very long-term effects, especially when people don’t seek counseling. Not only does it have a long-term effect, but it can lead into other mental illnesses such as depression, general anxiety disorder and substance abuse. So it branches off into other illnesses as a result of this one volatile event that can affect people for the next 5, 10, 15 years. Certainly affecting the way they view law enforcement officers.”

Kira Banks, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Louis University who is researching the mental health issues of Ferguson protesters, told AlterNet that the 'round-the-clock activism many of the protesters engaged in was honorable but unhealthy, especially if they were dealing with mental health issues before the protests began.

“It’s really hard to pull oneself out of activism because it feels so necessary for you to be present—everyday, all day, at all moments. But it’s not viable to maintain that pace,” she said. “We’ve seen people have recurrences of depressive episodes that lead to breakdowns because when you lack sleep and are pushing yourself to the limit and feel like you are literally fighting for your life or the lives of others, it’s stressful and it takes a toll on your physical health and your mental health.”

Actvists Who Have Moved to Ferguson

Charles Wade, 32, earned national recognition for co-founding Operation Help or Hush, a nonprofit that financially supports protesters and the larger community of Ferguson and other communities fighting for social justice around the nation. Wade moved to Ferguson from Austin, Texas, in August, to help the protesters organize and never left. A beauty boutique he left behind and a few other business and life plans have been put on hold. Helping the people of Ferguson has replaced all of that. Wade has no regrets, but seven months later, he’s struggling to process the depressing stories Ferguson residents share with him each day.  

“It’s sort of a running joke with my friends of, Oh, I feel like I’m getting old here because I felt like I was a pretty young, vibrant person before coming to Ferguson,” Wade, who is originally from Washington, DC, told AlterNet. “Now, I feel like my light is not that vibrant because it’s hard to be that light when you know other people are still weighed down. So that is where I know I will need help, as far as managing my work/life balance and dumping that stress somewhere else and not just keep it inside.”

Larry Fellows III, 29, a protester and native of St. Louis, said Ferguson drained him emotionally and financially. 

“I felt like I was living in a scary movie,” Fellows told AlterNet. “I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I asked myself, is this the week I’m going to die? Is this how I am going to die? This is not how I want to go out."

For weeks, Fellows woke up to nightmares stemming from his activism. Like Elzie and many other protesters, he endured tear-gas on many occasions. One night, he was forced to stay with friends in Ferguson for several days because he said local law enforcement refused to let people out of the protest areas. On many nights after leaving Ferguson, he says a patrol car from the St. Louis County Police Department would tail him to the parking lot of his apartment complex. Fellows had a full-time job at an insurance company, but was eventually fired because he spent more days protesting than at work. In January, he moved to New York City and is currently employed as a fellow at Amnesty International. While the city has been a great change of scenery for him, he has been unable to shake the triggering memories of Ferguson or pay off the debt he ran up.

“I owe almost $3,000 to my apartment complex. I had to illegally break my lease because of the position I took in Ferguson,” Fellows said. “If I had legally done it, I would have had to pay three times my rent. That’s money I don’t have. It’s a list of things that I’m dealing with every day that are really hard to process. And you don’t really want to talk to someone you’re friends with because you feel like you’re a Debbie Downer or you’re bitching about your problems.”

He has seen a therapist once and wants to go again, but can’t afford it. 

Lack of Access to Mental Healthcare for African Americans

Many African Americans find it difficult to afford therapy, which can range anywhere from $65 up to $200 and more per 50-minute session, depending on the region and whether the provider is insured or not. Another challenge for many of the Ferguson protesters whose trauma is specific to racial discrimination is that most licensed therapists aren’t black or multiculturally competent.

African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience psychological distress than white Americans, yet make up around 2.6 percent of mental health professionals; most black people prefer a mental health professional of the same race. The Affordable Care Act provides coverage for mental health treatment, but it still depends on the person being able to pay something. Moreover, each state implements the ACA differently, so people seeking coverage need to research the marketplace in their home state for specifics on how to get care.

The stigma from seeking mental healthcare is also an issue. According to a 1996 study, 63 percent of African Americans view depression as a personal weakness. Attitudes about seeking help have changed in the nearly 20 years since the study was published, but Robinson says it's still an issue for many African Americans.

Robinson and Banks encourage residents of Ferguson and St. Louis County to take advantage of the free and low-cost mental health services in their area. Members of the Association of Black Psychologists in St. Louis offer free mental health services people can sign up for on the organization’s website. So far, the group has provided pro-bono treatment to at least 1,000 residents of St. Louis County. 

Robinson says there is no need for people who feel traumatized by the events in Ferguson to suffer through that stress alone. Help is available.

“If we don’t push the message that seeking help from someone isn’t a sign of weakness but a sign of strength, then we’re going to have a mass of young adults who may be mentally crippled within the next decade,” she said. “Think about the ones who are raising children. So it is extremely important that we remove this stigma and tear down this barrier about seeking help.”

For more information:Services for The Children’s Services Fund, part of the St. Louis Mental Health Board, has a list of agencies that provide mental health services to children up to age 18. Those who feel the need to speak with someone immediately can call the Behavioral Health Response Hotline 24 hours a day at 314-469-6644.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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