Photo by Lindsey Reese

The Silence of Trauma and Mental Health in the Black Community

A (Common) Story of Perseverance

Matthew R. Manning
Jul 23, 2019 · 11 min read

We undermine the treatment of violence’s traumatic aftermath in America; the cultural activity of the past half-decade reinforces this. I’m hard-pressed to think of a mass shooting by a white, male perpetrator whose mental health was not invoked as the cause. It’s more difficult to summon instances where the mental health of Black and Brown youth experiencing trauma was taken seriously instead of cast aside or their natures described as innately violent.

The rise of movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and March For Our Lives have not only begun a transformation of the national psyche, they’ve amplified the decades of muted discourse and support around trauma. This is a positive and needed shift. But in these movements, I rarely hear sympathies or solutions extended to those who have experienced trauma in their own front yard.

Taylor was only eleven when his next-door neighbor, James “Jack-Jack” Moore, was fatally shot in front of Taylor’s Englewood home on the Southside of Chicago. Taylor was inside playing video games with his mother’s boyfriend, Earl, while his mother, Marcy Frierson, was cooking. His 16-year-old sister Shauntana — Taylor calls her “Sunshine” — was elsewhere in the home minding her own business.

Gunfire erupted outside. In a flurry of sound and disarray, Taylor and his family hit the floor. Marcy thought she heard the name “Jack-Jack” called out and darted outside. There she saw her 24-year-old neighbor bleeding from an open wound in his head, blood pouring onto his front stoop. Marcy grabbed some towels and wrapped up Jack Jack’s head to stop the bleeding. She held his head in her lap, desperate for a sign of life, but the young man was already dead. Taylor and Sunshine witnessed the scene unfold from inside the front door.

Now 28, Taylor recalls the moment vividly. “I wasn’t that scared or shook up, but I couldn’t tell you why; I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Sitting serenely on the back patio of his apartment in Los Angeles, the contrast between Taylor’s past and present is striking. A man of dark complexion, Taylor reveals a sheepish smile as he thinks back on all the violence he’s normalized. He wears a white tank top and a black bandana across his forehead, with headphones in his ears and a thin silver chain draping his neck. When he raises his hand to speak, the colorful beaded bracelet wrapped around his left wrist catches the glow of the evening sun. He speaks patiently, in no rush to recall the past he’s silenced.

Jack-Jack Moore’s murder marked the violent origin of a long and tumultuous history of trauma for Taylor and his family, compounded by corrosive mental health. His mother, Marcy, would spiral into depression, worsened by the death of her boyfriend one year later. The forging of Taylor’s identity as a Black man would be riddled with grief and disorientation, aggravated by the killing of his cousin by police, the suicide of a high school peer and the passing of both father and grandmother. Sunshine — whose very name subverts darkness — would be present to witness it all.

Photo by Lindsey Reese

Taylor’s past is an unfortunate reality for many Black Americans today, especially youth. And while those who are familiar with social and physical traumas like poverty or violence likely process them in different ways, such traumas often exacerbate mental health issues. Compounded with the pressures of Black identity — from common incidents of racism to an oversaturation of videotaped police shootings — many children in the Black community confront existential crises more often than they get to enjoy opportunities to just be kids.

“We have so wrongly failed the generations still to come,” says Ameena Matthews, the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago’s most notorious gang leaders and co-founder and former head of the Black P. Stone Nation. “Mental health is a matter of human rights, and we’ve politicized and commercialized it.”

Once slated to follow in her father’s footsteps, Matthews instead became a progressive Chicago activist most noted for her influence as a forebear of a radical violence-prevention model started by Cure Violence, which received national recognition in the 2011 Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Interrupters.

Matthews reveals the stories of many youths she’s worked with whose pain and emotional fracture is often mistaken for violence and anger. Young people unable to find access to appropriate medications or services resort to finding “remedies” in the streets — often weed and alcohol, and sometimes drugs or other activities more harmful.

“People just see our youth as Black and angry. They’re not considering their illnesses,” Matthews says. “The system has failed our young people, as well as our community — period — by stopping their resources and access to mental health services. These kids are trapped in a cycle.”

“It’s an unspoken thing that the reason we’re not talking about this form of PTSD is that the faces [of those who are suffering] are darker — they’re African-American, they’re Latino, they’re Asian.

The Cook County Hospital in Chicago, which treats 2,000 patients a year for gunshots, stabbings, and other violent injuries, conducted a study in 2014 on the rates of PTSD in inner-city communities grappling with violence and trauma. It found that 43% of all examined patients from communities with high rates of trauma — and greater than 43% of victims with gunshot wounds — exhibited clear signs of PTSD.

“The rates of PTSD we see are as high or higher than Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam veterans,” Dr. Kerry Ressler, the project’s lead investigator, told ProPublica. “The rates appear to be much higher in [poor] communities — largely African-American populations in Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia, where high rates of violent crimes have persisted despite a national decline.”

Understanding PTSD as a ramification of violence in domestic communities is a burgeoning topic. Mental health professionals and clinicians are identifying, perhaps for the first time, a need to rethink how we view and articulate mental health.

“Why did we never think of that? Why do we just call them violent thugs?” asks Carl J. Evans, Director of Operations and Programs at Hope for the Day, a suicide-prevention and mental health-focused nonprofit in Chicago founded in 2013.

“It’s an unspoken thing that the reason we’re not talking about this form of PTSD is that the faces [of those who are suffering] are darker — they’re African-American, they’re Latino, they’re Asian. That’s tied directly to the bigger social dialogue on how we treat one group of people (at any age level) in this society, and how we treat a whole other group. How a 12 and a 17-year-old Caucasian individual can be called a kid, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice is called a man.”

Tamir Rice was shot to death by a police officer within seconds of contact in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014 for playing in a park with a toy gun. “The difference in those responses is not an accident,” continues Evans. “There are economic tie-ins beyond the racial, but it’s impossible to bifurcate the racial and the economic.”

Dr. Mark Heyrman, who for 40 years has been a clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, notes that adult Latinx and Black populations are less likely to receive mental health treatment. He explains that health services are typically less present in poor neighborhoods. Furthermore, Black Americans (and other communities of color) live in disproportionately high rates of poverty and violence, which are aggressive triggers of mental distress.

According to the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health (2016), “Adult African-Americans are 20% more likely to report severe psychological distress than adult whites,” and “more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.”

Taylor’s mother, Marcy Frierson, is one such example. After Jack Jack’s death, Marcy felt the violence had come too close. She decided to leave their Englewood home at 57th and Carpenter, taking her son further east along Lake Michigan to a neighborhood that had a reputation for being safer. Taylor’s sister stayed with her grandma on the Southside.

One year later, Marcy’s boyfriend, Earl “ET” Taylor, would also become a victim of street violence. ET’s cousin had been killed only a month before. In the wake of these tragedies, Marcy moved her family once more, this time to South Minneapolis, following relatives who’d left Chicago years prior for similar reasons.

As a remedy for the pain, Marcy began to drink, increasingly abusing alcohol.

“It was her antidepressant,” Taylor says. “When my mom was depressed, I would sit on her bed, rub her back and tell her everything was going to be okay.” He breathes heavily, recalling those bitter days. “It was me and her against the world,” he says through a timid smile.

Taylor reflected an oft-repeated call-and-response between Black mother and son wherein she taught him the value of adulthood and independence in a world where youth and dependency got you killed.

“Never be a what?” she would ask.

“A follower,” he’d respond.

“Be your own what?” she asked again.

“Be my own man.”

Minneapolis brought rapid change. Taylor’s Chicago accents, habits, and mannerisms quickly faded. He was unlearning his old ways and creating space for a lighter, simpler life. Regaining normalcy meant mimicking the little things his peers did: celebrating traditional Christmases, pronouncing the ‘er’ at the end of his words and eating a sauce known as ‘pesto.’

Taylor thought the same way many Black kids who don’t yet know the consequence of being Black think. As long as he acted like his white peers, he thought, their reality would become his. But he came to see this perception as a false narrative. He became keenly aware of the privilege around him, carelessness and peace of mind he’d never known, rooted in a passive Minnesota culture.

“No matter how hard we try as Black men to be strong, the world is not set up for us.” Taylor says, “If it’s not the cops, it’s depression; if it’s not depression, it’s racism. It’s always something. We don’t have the privilege to be free.”

Following graduation from high school and a quick stint at the local public college, Taylor moved back to Chicago, closing the door on a city he’d grown to resent. In Chicago, he’d counseled inner-city youth, working as the Sophomore Dean at Roberto Clemente Community Academy, a high school in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

“I encountered mental health issues daily,” he said. “It was tough knowing there was little I could do for my students going through depression. Especially ’cause I knew what they were going through. We’re not given the tools to help them for more than the day. I could speak to them in my office and support them for a few hours, but what happens when Mr. Taylor is gone? It’s the psychological toll we take for constantly wanting to be better but never seeing better.”

One day, homeward bound on the Pink Line train, Taylor received a call from his sister and learned that his cousin, 22-year-old Terrance Terrell Franklin, was killed in Minneapolis, shot by the police following a 90-minute chase that started with a 911 burglary report against Franklin. Though the full story is still unclear, the ten fatal bullets that killed Terrance were mostly to the head and neck. It was May 10, 2013.

“I was mad for so long. I couldn’t even process being sad.” Taylor says. Like his mother, he began drinking to numb the pain. “It was one of the darkest places of my life,” he recalls. It was family that would get him through.

Taylor later branded himself with a tattoo on his right bicep that says “In Loving Memory: Terrance J. Franklin.” Every day, when Taylor wakes up, he kisses his arm, honoring the memory of his cousin. And these days, when Terrance’s name comes up, he smiles.

But trauma, by nature, is intrusive; it strikes without regard for convenience or condition. On August 30, 2015, two years following Terrance’s death, Taylor heard that a close friend from high school took his own life. Andrew Thomas, a seemingly happy soul, beloved by many, committed suicide at the age of 23, the third leading cause of death for Black men between 20–24 years as of 2015. (National Center for Health Statistics).

Andrew had often said that he believed “the reason [he] was put on this earth was to laugh.” For those who knew that about him, his sudden death was all the more surprising and upsetting.

An “overwhelming sense of hopelessness” grabbed hold of Taylor. The weight of Andrew’s death took a pervasive toll, grief seemingly compounding beyond repair. “A visual came into my head about what it looked like,” Taylor says, crying for the first time, “and it messed me up, man. It became clear to me that I’d seen too many dead bodies.”

Carl Evans says the simplest distillation for taking care of our mental health is thinking about it as a bottle of soda. “It shakes up, and it explodes. Your experiences are shaking that bottle. The trick is figuring out the appropriate valves to help diffuse the pressure before the bottle explodes or self-destructs.”

“No matter how hard we try as Black men to be strong, the world is not set up for us.” Taylor says, “If it’s not the cops, it’s depression; if it’s not depression, it’s racism. It’s always something. We don’t have the privilege to be free.”

In July of 2016, Taylor moved to Los Angeles to start fresh once again, pursuing a career in modeling and acting. At 28, he is now older than Jack-Jack was when he was slain in front of Taylor’s childhood home some 17 years ago.

Photo by Lindsey Reese

I can’t help but wonder, what if Taylor went the other way? What if he had opted to use violence to express his despair, or if his mother never made the decision to move and he had little agency at all. Would it be surprising considering everything he’d experienced? Could we blame him for becoming what his community imbued?

“Violence begets violence” is more than a physical proclamation — it is a mental and emotional one, even psychological. When will we acknowledge that the Black men we so stereotype and fear are actually wounded children, conditioned simultaneously to normalize violence and to swallow its traumas? When will a multi-billion dollar mental health industry catch up to serve those whose exposure to trauma is unthinkable, statistically analogous with the traumas of war?

Part of the definition of mental health in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is “the absence of mental illness.” Such lack of nuance might explain the precedent we’ve set for the apprehensive ways we discuss mental health and its absence in public discourse, particularly at the intersection of Black and Brown youth.

“There’s no magic wand for mental health,” says Evans. “It’s going to take treatment and recovery. But we can get people to a level of awareness and recognition and understanding about themselves and their peers and community so that they can healthily address these issues.”

My friend Taylor lived his life buffeted by the violent traumas of adolescence. His recitation of these experiences to me was marked by tears and heavy breathing, indicating a long-overdue release from years of repressed memories. Taylor coped as best he could, eventually serving other youth of color with hopes of alleviating the pressures he knew too well.

Many Black and Brown boys and girls are confronted with violence and trauma far too early in life, and they are expected to deal with it as an adult might. And most often, they do not receive the same sympathies and resources their white counterparts would were they in similar situations. If, as Carl Evans says, the lives of today’s boys and girls of color can be likened to a bottle of soda, they’re being shaken daily, vigorously, without remorse.

Until we do something to remedy the impact of trauma on the mental health of youth in our country — and markedly increase the discourse on this topic in underserved communities — the blame is largely on us if the pressure, like a shaken soda, reaches its inevitable pop.

Matthew R. Manning

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I seek the truth and try to make it plain. Words on identity, race, masculinity, and mental health.

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