by Ron Means, MD
Chief Medical Officer
Forensic Psychiatrist

Catholic Charities Chief Medical Officer Ron Means, MD, recently offered to our colleagues the below reflection on social unrest and how it affects the way our clinical therapists and other staff care for patients and clients. This essay was originally published in an internal newsletter called “Clinical Notes.” Reprinted here with permission.

We have seen [weeks of] protests triggered by the killing of yet another unarmed black person by police officers. Admittedly, after seeing the video of George Floyd’s death and watching the protests grow in number, I felt an initial numbness. We were just getting back on our feet from the pandemic, only to be knocked over again. 

…My son asked, “Dad, with all of the violent protests and police killing black men, will we be OK?” As I struggled to respond, I realized I didn’t even know what he was asking – whether society would recover, whether he might be affected by a violent protest or whether he might be killed by a cop just because he is a black boy. The complexity of his seemingly simple question made me realize that we must work to understand how the recent unrest is affecting us and those we serve.

In order to understand how the recent tragedies might be impacting individuals, we must first recognize that systemic racism and social injustice results in chronic trauma. The victimization of racism causes despair and hopelessness that fuels rage. It is this rage that results in not only violent protest but also many of the poor outcomes that we work to prevent. It is relatively easy to link protests and even riots to racial injustice. Is it as easy to understand that school failure, poor health outcomes, drug use or criminal behaviors can be driven by the same injustice?

As we use our trauma-based interventions in treating those we are seeking to help during these difficult times, being aware of themes of victimization, powerlessness, despair, and rage is essential. We cannot be afraid to ask about the pain of racism while also examining our responses to make sure we are not imposing our views upon others. We should attempt to suspend our assumptions and judgments in order to truly hear and understand. Most importantly, as always, we have to meet people where they are and realize that everyone is not impacted the same way, at the same time.

The weight of the moment is apparent as we all struggle to manage our emotions while trying to help others. It is easy to grow numb and disconnected when working against seemingly insurmountable obstacles like systemic racism. During these times, we must take care of ourselves. In order to guide others towards emotional health, we have to be healthy. Using the coping skills that we teach is key. We should continue to exercise, relax, vacation and sleep, and limit news consumption when possible. We should also talk to others and, if necessary, ask for help.