You may be suffering from “Vicarious Trauma”: What it is and what you can do about it

Above: As the message, “This report contains graphic content. Viewer discretion is advised” scrolls across the television screen, it is too late to turn the television off. The viewers are often surprised and/or disturbed by the content.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

By Rina Risper
President & Publisher

Making the decision to turn off the television and avoid graphic videos, was not hard for me. The goal is to abstain from visual media for a month. I am a media person but when is it enough? When did we become a country that replays death scenes so frequently on broadcast media and the internet? It is real and traumatizing. There are plenty of people whose mental health is suffering as a result of it.

We watch in terror as Ahmaud Aubrey, a 25-year-old Black man, is killed over and over again by way of the 24/7 news cycle since the video came to light on May 5, 2020. Not only did it draw nationwide attention but the fact that is constantly left out was that it took two months to investigate. No matter what the person’s race is, what happened is baffling and disturbing. No matter what, there is a right and a wrong way of dealing with issues.

Growing up

When we were in kindergarten, we were taught the basics of “treating people like you want to be treated.” When we went home crying because of an injustice, our parent(s) would go to the school and speak with the teacher or principal.

The problem was usually straightened out. Our emotional hurts were smoothed over by those who you relied on to protect you against what seemed like an enormous hurdle to a kindergartener. The situation was made even better when you got to lick the spoon with leftover cake batter on it.

Constructing Criminal Activity

Ahmaud’s death in broad daylight was originally not considered a crime. It took protest and outrage from our nation and the world. He was killed on February 23, 2020. He was not treated the way he should have been and died as a result of it.

Depending on which media source I am watching or reading I feel stressed by word choice. I would like to confirm that there wasn’t a “confrontation.” It appeared to be an ambush.

According to CNN, one of the defendants said he saw Ahmaud inside a home under construction. Even though the surveillance video at the site had Ahmaud in the footage, the owner of the home said he did not see him commit a crime on the day of the shooting. Multiple other people had been seen trespassing at the same home that was under construction.

In 1975, we moved from Brooklyn, NY to Bay Shore, Long Island to a quaint cul de sac right behind the junior high school and five minutes from the Long Island Sound. The former farm was dotted with fruit trees that were slowly demolished and replaced with shrubs and pine trees. There were only two other houses when we moved in September of that year.

I recall the construction stopping in the fall on the house next door. We watched as the foundation filled up with water and froze. My mother would bundle us up in our matching parkas and mittens, put our double-bladed ice skates on and skate on the ice-filled foundation until our hands turned red. In the spring, we found that crab apples were the perfect size for throwing at other children who dared to come close to the fort we had built in the small section of woods that was still left.

According to my mother, the rest of the houses were built as homeowners purchased their lots. I called her to ask her about the move. She said that the cul-de-sac was advertised to Black families. There was another section of the town with Black residents but the houses were developed for low-income families. This is where I think the nickname “The Development” came from.

I recall as a child playing in the empty houses with the other children that slowly moved into the newly built houses on Pembrook Court, nicknamed “The Court.”

Curious children from “The Development” would ride their bicycles in groups over to the construction zones as we became acclimated to the fact there weren’t corner stores and we could ride our bicycles alone until the lights came on. Empty houses became our playgrounds, we would throw dirt bombs from the second floor down to attack the incoming threat while playing our version of “Star Trek.”
We felt safe.

Once while we were playing, there were about 6 of us, the foreman of the construction crew caught us. We were quickly ushered to our front doors and told not to go into the empty houses again. My mother explained that she would take care of it but there was a multitude of other people going into the empty houses as well. Even though now that I think about it, we were trespassing and engaging in the destruction of property. But dying over it?

Changing times

Recently, while on the phone with my mother, I expressed that I had called asked about “The Court” and the homes specifically being marketed to Black families. We talked about that time period and how she did not have an idea why there were not any other families being sold homes in our area.

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My mother was silent for a moment and said, “I could not even imagine what happened to Ahmaud Aubrey happening to any of the children that lived in our cul de sac. She mention that we played in the empty houses all the time. It was never even a thought in my mind before this call.

My mother is not a political or news-oriented person so I was surprised when she said, “You know RiRi, that was a modern-day lynching.”

My eyes widened on my end of the phone and I leaned in. We had not ever had a conversation like this before. I could tell she had become just as weary as I had.

She continued, “The only difference was that the white truck took the place of the horses and the gun took the place of the noose. It was unnecessary and very racist.”

That sat with me. That sat on me. My mother who never talks about racism or politics connected with my knowledge of lynchings and how many families have been impacted by them. There are some who do not want to talk about this but we have to attempt to understand the history and how it has impacted all of us. Her sadness was palatable and we did not know Ahmaud. It is different when your parent has a conversation with you about a subject that you had not before.

We can Google almost anything now. Google “photos of lynchings” and you will see some type of public killing.

However, I warn you the images are horrific. More than likely the public killing of the person who did not receive any due process is Black. These executions by hanging, shooting, and even more horrendous – physical burning, were carried out by lawless mobs under the pretext of justice.

Vicarious trauma is a psychological response associated with the disturbing experiences and traumatic events of another person, often victims or crime or abuse. The condition describes the indirect trauma or the result of identifying with a trauma survivor’s suffering.

I and many others are strained by the pandemic. Even though vicarious trauma was primarily for those in the medical field or counseling, it is being attributed to what many are feeling today.

Jaynaya James, the owner of Live, Laugh, Love Family Services in Okemos, MI, is a Licensed Master Social Worker, who is also a Moral Recognition Therapist. She explained that you as an individual come first. She stated that if you cannot take care of yourself, it is difficult to take care of others.

James added, “First and foremost, remember to be gentle with yourself. Take a step back from caring for others and tend to your needs. In caring for others’ needs, many times we forget about our needs. Seek the support of family and friends or seek a professional therapist for support.”

Can We Make Things Better?

Social media networks have begun to place warning messages over videos and images it deems graphic in nature. This gives you the opportunity to decide whether or not to view the disturbing footage. This warning message also prevents the videos or messages from automatically playing. It is so tempting to click play, but train yourself to move along. Ask yourself, “Do I really want to see this?”

Have we become desensitized to extreme violence? Do we blame it on violent video games, discrimination, stress, music that glorifies violence, or an abusive childhood? I can not really say. Is the uptick in violence against our fellow human beings as a result of the pandemic, illness, death, mask mandates, the inability to eat in a restaurant, fear, wars, COVID-19 or is the dynamic of violence just becoming what we believe it to be? Is this now our future?

We will have to wait and see.