The Impact Being Black in the U.S. Has on Mental Health

impact being black in mental health

Allan Louis

Member of Quartet for the Black Culture Employee Resource Group

May 28, 2020

In honor of Mental Health Month, Quartet’s focus this week will be the “Mental Health and Me” series, a compilation of pieces that highlight how communal identity can influence mental health and access to mental health care. Each piece in this series was written by a Quartet Employee Resource Group (ERG). ERGs enhance the sense of belonging for diverse groups at Quartet, provide safe spaces for employees to lean on each other, and generate belonging among employees. The below was submitted by the Quartet for the Black Culture (QBC) ERG.


Recently, as I was exiting the subway station on my way to school, there was a police officer posted at the station with an assault rifle. These were my inner thoughts as I tried to exit the station:

“Here we go…. Just stay calm, no big deal. Wait, is that a RIFLE?! There’s no other exit I have to walk past him.”

“Stay! Calm!”

“He must be SWAT or something. Maybe they’re looking for someone.”

“OH NO! Do I match the description? Am I going to become the someone he’s looking for? There’s no other exit. I have to walk past him”

“Make sure your hood is down. NO EYE CONTACT. Walk slow. Not too slow. Don’t act suspicious.”

“Don’t be so tense, he’ll think something is up. Relax your shoulders. Take your hands out of your pockets.”

“Should I record with my phone? Don’t make any sudden movement. Is there another Black person near me??? Please, someone, look this way. ”

“You are almost there, Allan. Just breathe.”

“What do I do if he approaches me? I didn’t do anything, but that doesn’t matter. This happens all the time. If he asks you anything, just be respectful. Just like your parents always said.”

“Be cool, man. Just be cool.”

“This can’t happen, I haven’t graduated yet. I haven’t traveled enough. I haven’t started a family. My career hasn’t even begun.”

“What about my loved ones? How will they find out? Will they get a phone call? Will they just see my face on the news?”

“Thank God. I’m finally outside….”

Thirteen seconds. That’s all the time it took for me to walk out of the subway station past the cop. Thirteen seconds of rash thoughts. Thirteen seconds of near immobilizing fear. This is how mental health manifests in the Black community: a whirlwind of constant anxiety.

I wasn’t in a warzone. I wasn’t in a bad neighborhood. I was in Manhattan’s prominent neighborhood TriBeCa. For the last three years, I have attended New York Law School and have never experienced anything suspicious or criminal. So why was I so scared for those thirteen seconds? I was scared because I was experiencing trauma that comes with being Black in America.

According to a 2010 study, Black people experience PTSD at a higher rate than any other ethnic group in the United States. There are endless sources for this trauma both historical and current. Even today we consistently see devastating deaths of Black people at the hands of police and white supremacists.

In the last week alone, I have seen four new videos of unarmed Black men either being beaten senseless by police or attacked by individuals claiming to make “a citizen’s arrest.” The victims’ looming threat? Existing while Black. The constant presence of physical abuse on Black and brown bodies leaves their communities emotionally scarred and with the overwhelming fear: “Could I be next?” This leads communities of color to be paranoid, anxious, untrusting, and uneasy.

Unfortunately, this anxiety-induced internal dialogue I had in the subway is not an isolated incident. Honestly, I feel crushing anxiety every time I see a police officer. Black people all over the country continuously experience similar distress.

Of course, the current news surrounding the murder of Ahmaud Arbery plays a huge role in the present discussion of violence-related anxieties in the Black community. Arbery was killed in cold blood in the middle of the day by three men under the pretense of a “citizen’s arrest.” After inadvertently watching the traumatizing video of what happened, it was clear to me this was no civil service, this was a modern-day lynching.

The recent release of this video has sparked pain, sadness, and anger in Black communities across the country. How could it not? How can we remain silent and watch hate-induced violence against our brothers and sisters? Arbery was simply jogging through his own neighborhood when his life was taken. Commonplace activities no longer feel safe. Communities of color at large are hurting, experiencing vicarious trauma in witnessing horrible tragedies become quotidian normalcy.

These situations are having a profound impact on our collective mental health in a myriad of ways. Arbery was brutally murdered in late February. It was not until May 5th, after hundreds of thousands of people demanded justice, that two of the three perpetrators were arrested. The lack of consequence given to these assailants contributes to a distorted view of self-worth within the Black community. The effects on our mental health are not abstract rhetoric, they’re visible and palpable. According to The New York Times:

“The researchers analyzed responses from 2013 to 2016 to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national survey that interviews more than 400,000 adults, selected at random each year, about their health. They juxtaposed responses to questions regarding mental health with data from Mapping Police Violence, a database of police killings around the country.

The annual health survey is done by telephone on a rolling basis throughout the year, and the researchers analyzed responses given by residents in states where a police killing had occurred in the three months before they were interviewed. They found that Black Americans reported more “not good” mental health days in the period after a police killing of an unarmed Black person and that the killings accounted for up to 1.7 additional days of poor mental health a year.”

This has now become a public health crisis. There is a constant sense of impending doom, a level of fear that deeply affects the mental health of many. We have to create change. We must teach first responders appropriate crisis responses and effective dialogue, based on a communal understanding of the trauma communities of color experience. We need to implement new training models that teach police to appropriately de-escalate situations with people of color. We must support and emphasize policies that dismantle structural racism in this country. We must create programs that mitigate the profound negative effects that these killings cause.

Without these changes, the Black community will continue to experience distress. Until then, I will continue reliving those thirteen seconds.

Explore more

Quality Mental Health Care, Wherever You Are

Quality Mental Health Care, Wherever You Are

At Quartet, we know that mental health care isn’t one size fits all.

Take Your Own Advice- A Note to Therapists on Self Care During COVID‑19

Take Your Own Advice: A Note to Therapists on Self Care During COVID‑19

COVID-19 added a layer of complexity for mental healthcare workers, who may be experiencing their own stressors and anxieties related to the crisis.

fighting two pandemics

Fighting Two Pandemics: Supporting Domestic Violence Survivors and Their Mental Health Needs During COVID‑19

For some, following the stay-at-home orders for one pandemic may render them vulnerable to another: domestic violence.