How Do We Stop Trauma From Becoming Trending?

Kalief Browder’s name and life have become trending. We use his name to implicate the criminal justice system. We point fingers at law enforcement agencies, correctional officers, punitive discipline policies and conversely, applaud mainstream media outlets for getting his story out there to the public. But, what impact did reliving his trauma through the media have on the lead-up to his final suicide attempt?

When any person commits suicide it’s difficult to pinpoint a singular cause that leads them to take their life. It’s clear that the trauma this young man experienced within Rikers Island had a negative impact on his life. He experienced physical and emotional abuse from fellow inmates and staff at Rikers. Additionally, similar to many other youth that look just like him, he spent a prolonged duration of time in solitary confinement, for a crime he did not commit. His family could not afford to hire a lawyer or pay his bail, resulting in him spending time in jail while he awaited a trail date for years. Imagine the psychological toll of spending three years on Rikers Island for a crime you did not commit. My concern is what negative implications did reliving his trauma in interviews on talk shows, like The View, and interviews with The New Yorker have on him? Think about how daytime talk shows have guests on their show. The conversation, or 5 minute segment, goes something like this:

Talk Show Host: Today we have a special guest that experienced something many of us would never be able to handle. THEY WALK ON STAGE.

First question: How are you today?

Second question: Can you tell us about [insert trauma story]? How did you survive that ?

Third question: What do you want us all to know?

Last statement: All of us wish you the best, you are a role model for many. NOW, back to our holiday segment and celebrity hot topics.

That is essentially what Kalief, and too many others, experience and even worse. He sat with a journalist at The New Yorker and watched a video of himself being physically abused on film. The marketed purpose, expose how inherently corrupt the criminal justice system is. The hidden purpose, get views, clicks, critical acclaim for getting this poignant story to the public. The impact, making a trauma survivor relive their abuse, and I am assuming, without a mental health professional present. Keep in mind, Kalief attempted suicide numerous times before he successfully took his life.

I’m writing this piece to set a precedent. When journalists interview individuals who’ve experienced trauma and/or have attempted suicide in the past they need to be trained with trauma informed care or at the very least, have a mental health professional present. Especially, if you are going to re-traumatize a person by showing them a video of themselves being abused.

Why do I care? I’m black and I know how often our trauma is sensationalized for a good story and how people who do not look like us tell our stories. I have family members, like many of us, who struggle with their mental health. I am a social worker. I work at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) in the SEEK Dept. with youth who look just like Kalief; he was a student at a fellow CUNY College, BCC. I care because I don’t want this form of trauma exploitation to continue unchecked. Conversations about Kalief don’t seem to be ending anytime soon because a six-part documentary is going to be on Spike in March called, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story”.

Our stories need to be out there, but they need to get out there with care.

Rest in Peace, Kalief Browder (1993–2015)

Delmar Dualeh was born and raised in Harlem, NY. He is a Social Worker who received his MSW from the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. Dualeh currently works at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) as an Academic Counselor & Adjunct Professor for the SEEK Department.