In the aftermath of continued systematic racism and race-related stress among Black Americans, more individuals are engaging in activism to promote change within the legal system and society. Activism ranges from a number of activities, such as building on existing resources, participating in rallies, or more disruptive activities . Over the past few years, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has prompted many in the community to become more engaged and advocate for systemic change.
In a previous blog published by the American Psychological Association (APA), I discussed the impact of racial trauma or race-related stress on Black Americans. However, one area that is often not discussed is how members who engage in activism cope with such stress. The events in Charlottesville earlier this year remind us that coping in the face of activism is important to your mental health. Earlier this month, scholars presented some new research during the 2017 APA convention held in Washington D.C. on “Coping Among Black Lives Matter Activists.” The study, co-authored by graduate students (Paris Wheller, Della Mosley, and Carolyn Meiller) at the University of Kentucky under the direction of Danelle Stevens-Watkins, Ph.D., found that individuals often intentionally disconnect from co-workers, white people, or social media as a means of self-preservation. Personally, I can acknowledge that in the last year, with the number of police shootings, I made a conscious decision many times to avoid social media.
The research also identified other common methods of coping such as seeking social support, sharing personal stories of survival, and resisting systems that perpetrate harm or racism. Through personal communication, I had an opportunity to speak directly with the students about their research. According to Paris Wheller, what was most interesting about the interviews from the study was that “people consistently reported walking away from the environment and disconnecting from individuals or groups in an effort to manage negative psychological reactions.” Her hope is to continue applying her work on examining coping mechanisms and how factors such as racial socialization and racial identity influence how Black people cope with racism.
How can research on activism and coping apply to therapy?
Given the findings from the study above, it is important to think about the implications of this research for therapists who work with Black Americans. According to research, Black Americans are reluctant to seek professional help from a therapist or mental health provider . However, one barrier to engaging Black Americans in therapy is they often feel that their therapist is not culturally sensitive or doesn’t understand their community. Research has shown that in addition to isolation, people need a space to work through their reactions . Wheeler, states “therapists can be useful (for activists) by creating a safe place to process events and facilitate Storying Survival.” This concept involves sharing stories about anti-Black racism through verbal, written, or creative methods. Furthermore, therapists can help Black clients learn how to self-reflect and decide whether disconnecting is the healthiest way to cope according to Wheeler. Della Mosley – one of the lead co-authors – emphasized that “therapists need to be able to understand and respond when they witness and perpetuate anti-Black racism”. Mosley wants to “use her privilege and training as a counseling psychologist to promote radical healing for the Black community and facilitate support groups for those fighting for racial justice.”
Hector Adames, Ph.D., and Nayeli Chavez-Dueñas, Ph.D., co-directors of the IC-Race Lab (Immigration, Critical Race, And Cultural Equity) at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, have developed a toolkit for surviving and resisting hate. According to Dr. Adames and Dr. Chavez-Dueñas, they developed the #SurvivingAndResistingHate Toolkit to help individuals manage stress related to the current socio-political climate and recent events of racial hatred. “In a society that often silences our voices and prescribes the ways we “should” respond to injustices, the toolkit reminds People of Color that we can give ourselves permission to embrace and fully express the wide range of emotions that result from oppression including anger” states Adames. You can locate the toolkit here.
 Lantz, M. M., Fix, R. L., Davis, B. L., Harrison, L. N., Oliver, A., Crowell, C., Mitchell, A.M., & García, J. J. (2016). Grad students talk: Development and process of a student-led social justice initiative. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 290-306.
 Turner, E. A., Camarillo, J., Daniel, S., Otero, J., & Parker, A. (2017). Correlates of psychotherapy use among ethnically diverse college students. Journal of College Student Development, 58(2), 300-307.