Dr. Tanya Royster talks psychological distress on community, resulting from killing of unarmed Black men

Tanya Royster
Photo courtesy Dr. Tanya Royster

West Baltimore has received a great deal of undue negativity publicity due to the riots this week following the death of Freddie Gray, 25. In an interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, Washington Post reporter Michael Fletcher, shared his experience as a reporter — and a Black man — living in Baltimore for the past 30 years. He pointed out West Baltimore “has twice the murder rate of Baltimore, twice the poverty rate, twice the unemployment rate.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, poverty level affects mental health status. African Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are three times more likely to report psychological distress.

Psychiatrist clinician and administrator Tanya A. Royster, MD points out also, “The repeated media coverage of the brutality and killing of African American men can be viewed as a source of trauma to everyone who is repeatedly exposed to it.”

Following the failures of law enforcement officials in Sanford (Trayvon Martin), Ferguson (Michael Brown), Staten Island (Eric Garner), to charge perpetrators and hold parties responsible for any of those deaths, West Baltimore residents and citizens were essentially hopeless.

Dr. Royster adds, “It is hard for African Americans to embrace the idea of therapy because of the way that we, as a people and as individuals, have been portrayed and treated in America including in the field of medicine.”

Read what else she has to say.

Tell us about your educational background.

I am the proud product of the public school system of Gary, Indiana. I obtained my Bachelors of Arts degree in Psychology from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. I chose to attend Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland because of its innovative approach to looking at medicine from a systems approach. That means understanding that no one part works alone in isolation and all are interdependent on each other in order to survive. This is indicative of my approach to understanding and working with families and communities as well. During my residency in general adult psychiatry and my fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University/Bellevue Hospital Medical Center in New York City, I worked with people of all different cultures and nationalities. This really strengthened my understanding of the importance of culture, community and systems on health and mental health and this continues to influence my work on a daily basis

What are the benefits in going to therapy?

There are many benefits of engaging in therapy. Therapy gives you an opportunity to explore and share your inner most thoughts, hopes, dreams, worries, fears, problems and concerns. You should experience a supportive but still objective guide on your journey of self-discovery. Being in therapy is an opportunity to change and let go of old thinking patterns, habits and behaviors that interfere with your happiness and health. Therapy works for individuals, couples, families and groups who are working individually or collectively to improve what is going on in their lives.

Why is it such a taboo for the African American community to go to therapy?

Therapy is a place where you should feel safe to be your truest self and open up about all the good, the bad and the ugly you have inside. African Americans are painfully aware of these perceptions, labels and stereotypes and often fear that the therapist will openly or secretly hold these same views. That fear becomes a huge barrier to openly engaging in the kind of trust necessary for therapy to be successful.

What kind of psychological damage has the senseless murders of black men have on our community?

Every person or group of people wants to feel safe, respected and appreciated and African Americans are no exception. The frequent, repeated, senseless killing of African American men is a demonstration of the lack of respect for the life of African American men and the importance of the role they hold in the African American family and community. Living in an environment where you, or the people you love, do not feel valued or respected is extremely stressful and damages one’s self esteem, sense of self, and self-worth. You begin to believe the views that those in the outside world have held about you. This is damaging our African American youth and hindering their future.

How can we get more African Americans to participate in seeking help regarding mental health?

There are several barriers to African Americans engaging in therapy. Some our internal and we, as African Americans, must change those. Some are external systemic issues that must be acknowledged, addressed and changed in order to see improvement in African Americans getting the help they deserve. One of the internal issues that African Americans must release in order to reach out more for mental health treatment is the shame and stigma associated with having mental health problems in ourselves and in our families. Having a mental illness does not mean that we are not strong or that we cannot handle the overwhelming stress to which we are exposed. Mental illnesses are biologically based illnesses that require treatment. Both talk therapy and medication therapy have been proven to change brain chemistry and functioning and improve mental health.

One of the external or systemic issues that limit African Americans from getting mental health care is lack of easily accessible mental health care services in or near our communities. There is also a lack of clinicians who are trained to understand the impact of being an African American in America and how that interacts and interferes with health and mental health in particular. Though President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has made a huge impact, there are still inequalities in how much and what types of mental health care are covered and paid which also limits access to vulnerable populations which includes many African Americans. All of these systemic barriers could be improved with policy, legislation and funding strategies if the mental health of African Americans were to become a priority.

The media continues to show the shootings and unfair treatment of black men. Watching this over and over does what to us mentally?

The primary trauma occurs to the individual and family involved. The rest of the community and the nation can experience these repeated events and repeated airings of these events as a secondary trauma. Trauma causes changes in the way our brains work and experience the world. African Americans may find themselves feeling more anxious, worried and unsafe. If these feelings go on for an extended period of time they can lead to clinical depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

Where can someone seek help regarding stress, trauma, death, etc.?

There are lots of places to find help when we feel overwhelmed by the hand that life has dealt. Many of us have family, friends, neighbors, teachers and spiritual leaders we can talk to when we need support. Even though they are not professional clinicians, these natural supports can provide an important bridge before clinical help is obtained. If more help is necessary you can start with your primary care doctor and ask for a recommendation for a therapist for talk therapy or a psychiatrist if you and your doctor think medication therapy should be a consideration.

What can we do to help our loved ones who may need professional support regarding emotional and mental issues?

Being a good listener is one of the best ways that we can support each other when we are struggling with emotional or mental health issues. A good listener is open, affirming and nonjudgmental. A good listener is able to offer constructive feedback without being harsh or critical. A good listener supports us when we are doing well and encourages and offers hope when we are feeling down.

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