CANADA: Mental Health Awareness Month: Blacks and Police Brutality

A lingering pause at a lesser-known cause of mental illness.

By Yvonne Sam

In Canada, October is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is an essential part of overall physical health and satisfaction.

However, has any degree of real attention been paid on the mental health issues in Blacks associated with police brutality? The data is engrossing and unquestionable. A 2017 report by three independent Montreal- based researchers found that Blacks were four to five times more likely to be stopped by police officers. Another 5 in 10 Blacks said that they or a family member had been stopped. Plainly put that means that if you know two Black people, one of them feels that they have been treated unfairly by the police.           

According to a 2018 poll 74 per cent of Black parents had warned their children to be cautious around police, versus 32 per cent of Caucasian parents. In August 2020, a final report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission on racial discrimination by the Toronto Police Force revealed that between 2013 and 2017 Black Toronto residents were 20 times more likely to be fatally shot by police. Of note, is the fact that less than 9%of Toronto’s population is Black. A 2016 Pew poll found that 7 in 10 White people thought police usually use the right amount of force, versus just 1 in 3 Black people. The bottom line is that whites enjoy a privilege, in addition to being white that Blacks cannot comprehend– police brutality is an afterthought in their lives, and the lives of their sons and daughters.

In 2018, using mental health survey data and a database of police shootings Drs. Bor and Venkataramani of the University of Pennsylvania conducted ground breaking research on how the rash of headline-grabbing police killings of unarmed Blacks was damaging the mental well-being of Black communities.  The researchers found that the mental health of white Americans was not similarly affected.  A report published in The Lancet a leading British medical journal also gave credence to the concerns. The researchers argued that their study was a momentous attempt to assess the measurable, if indirect, harms that police violence has inflicted on the broader psychological and emotional well-being of Blacks.

An  understanding of the study reveals that if anyone regardless of ethnicity or race has a son who is killed by the police, it has a traumatic impact on his survivors; his family, his friends, his neighbors; in fact, everyone who knew him. Viewed from another angle this says that when any Black person sees, or hears about, a Black male killed by police, they experience “collective trauma”.   Trauma is simply the impact on a person from an event or injury. Collective trauma is what takes place when this impact is felt by an entire group of people, or a community; or even a nation. The events following the 9/11 terrorist bombings left America in what would be considered an example of collective trauma.

What Blacks are witnessing is an example of “collective trauma”. As members of the Black community in Canada, each one of us has carried the burdens of structural racism throughout our respective lifetimes that our shared experiences has formed a shared emotional bond with every other Black person in the country. The effect on the overall mental health of Blacks is enormous as they suffer more poor mental health days from police killings of unarmed Blacks than from diabetes. It is evident that only Blacks experience this “collective trauma” following police killings of other unarmed Blacks, only because of the shared experiences of structural racism.

The objective of this column is to provide some contextual framework for understanding the sense of range and pain many Blacks are experiencing at this time. One could positively say that Blacks have reached their tipping point.

George Floyd, a Black American was the drop of water that caused the collective glass to overflow, resulting in a collective outrage never before seen. To the outside observer, do not judge the story by the chapter you walked in on. Our collective trauma would not soon disappear, as we will always remember those no longer here: to name a few– Bony Jean-Pierre, Andre Loku, Leslie Presley, Machuar Madut, Jermaine Carby. The generations of trauma from the pain and sufferings of our ancestors, that we each carry with us, just reached its’ tipping point. As Terrie Williams said in her book titled “Back Pain” : It Just Look Like We’re Not Hurting. The facts and the evidence speak for themselves.   Efforts to reduce health disparities should explicitly target structural racism.” Given that the Black community exists at the intersection of racism and classism and health inequity their mental health needs are often exacerbated and mostly unfulfilled.

  • Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, resides in Montreal Canada. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, Pride Magazine,  XPressblogg and Guyanese Online. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.
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