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Mental health experts warn Chauvin trial may revive feelings of racial trauma

ABC News logo ABC News 4/1/2021

As the Derek Chauvin trial is nationally televised and livestreamed this week, Americans have once again been exposed to the May 2020 video of the former police officer driving his knee into George Floyd's neck as he repeatedly said, "I can't breathe," in his dying moments.

These images may rekindle feelings of racial trauma, with mental health experts warning that watching the trial could have profound emotional and psychological consequences for Black Americans.

MORE: Witness breaks down while watching body camera footage of George Floyd's arrest: 'I feel helpless'

"Revisiting the events connected to George Floyd's death serve as a visual reminder of the devaluing of Black life and the potential costs associated with racism and discrimination," said Steven Kniffley Jr., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Spalding University's School of Professional Psychology.

Research shows that repeated exposure to racism, such as watching the televised trial, is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance-use disorders and suicide.

Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, Ph.D., L.P., a clinical psychologist and executive director of the African American Child Wellness Institute, said rewatching the dramatic death of Floyd on television and social media can have devastating mental health impacts, a phenomenon called vicarious, or secondary, trauma.

a man with graffiti on the side of a building: Mementos dedicated to George Floyd are on display at the Chicago Fine Arts Gallery, while Minneapolis enters its third day of the trial of Derek Chauvin, who is facing murder charges in the death of George Floyd, March 31, 2021. © Octavio Jones/Reuters Mementos dedicated to George Floyd are on display at the Chicago Fine Arts Gallery, while Minneapolis enters its third day of the trial of Derek Chauvin, who is facing murder charges in the death of George Floyd, March 31, 2021.

"Symptoms of vicarious or secondary trauma include, but may not be limited to, difficulty managing emotions, feeling emotionally numb or shut down, experiencing fatigue, sleep disturbances, flashbacks or intrusive memories, physical problems or complaints, such as aches, pains and decreased resistance to illness," Garrett-Akinsanya said.

a person with graffiti on the wall © Octavio Jones/Reuters

Experts say engaging in healthy self-care is critical when experiencing racial trauma. They emphasize steering away from harmful compensatory behaviors, such as food, drugs, alcohol and gambling.

MORE: How the trial of Derek Chauvin is affecting Minneapolis community

Garrett-Akinsanya said that healthy forms of self-care include "getting enough sleep, talking to friends, family or coworkers about your concerns, setting limits when conditions are overwhelming, being good to yourself and taking time to laugh, dream, meditate, pray, exercise and play."

Kniffley said that right now, Black Americans can engage in intentional self-care by limiting consumption of the trial, setting boundaries with trial discussion and seeking out spaces that will positively affirm racial identity.

Mishal Reja, M.D., is a board-certified internal medicine physician and ABC News Medical Contributor.

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