Mental health experts are warning the public about watching violent videos such as the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.
Last week, the Chicago Police Department released the footage of the moments that lead up to the shooting of the boy in a Little Village alley. The video appears to show Adam dropping a gun and raising his hands before he is shot.
The video played on television screens and social media platforms in Chicago and around the world. It was just one of many to have such an effect.
In recent years, videos like the death of George Floyd, whose Memorial Day killing by a Minneapolis police officer sparked global protests, have been widely circulated online Last week, authorities in Brooklyn Center, Minn. released body camera footage of a police officer fatally shooting Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man.
Experts said these types of videos are often viewed by young, diverse audiences, who can be especially susceptible to mental health trauma after viewing them.
When people have a traumatic experience, “it can trigger a traumatic stress response, whereby they find themselves thinking about the event all the time,” said Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“Or they might experience a range of negative emotions like anger, numbness, sadness or depression. And in recent weeks with folks being surrounded by so much trauma in different contexts with Derek Chauvin in trial and with video of Adam Toledo being released, these are constant triggers for trauma that people are being really confronted with over and over again,” said Burnett-Zeigler.
A 2019 study conducted by the University of Southern California found that viewing violent videos of police shootings can have damaging effects to the mental health of adolescents of color.
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, showed teens of color reported depressive symptoms and PTSD symptoms after watching traumatic events online.
The researchers’ findings showed that Latino teens reported significantly more depressive symptoms than African American teenagers. Female teens reported significantly more depressive and PTSD symptoms than their male counterparts. This was true for teens that viewed violence involving both African Americans and Hispanic individuals.
“There’s a level and intensity now that’s unprecedented,” says Dr. John Walkup, head of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. “I think it puts enormous pressure on kids, and they’re so overexposed to the darkest sides of life, at an early age and I just can’t believe that that’s good for kids in the long run.”
Walkup specializes in major psychiatric disorders during childhood, including anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. He said as children are exposed to acts of violence in the media, parents are the most important buffer for those experiences.
“Kids will have very different experiences to this kind of exposure. The temptation for parents is to do a lot of talking and the problem is, that shuts the young person down,” said Walkup. “If the teen is really struggling with something around viewing some of the material, they don’t have the opportunity because the parents have cut off discussion, they’ve moved too quickly to talk or lecture or guide, and what they really need to do is deeply understand what the teen has seen and what they’ve experienced and what they think.”
Walkup said about 20% of children in Illinois will have a behavioral health problem before they graduate from high school and only about half of those kids get any type of professional help.
“The biggest challenge that we currently face in Chicago and really the rest of the country is that we don’t have an adequate mental health system for kids,” said Walkup. “Even those families that want to engage the mental health system will find that that access is really difficult because of the capacity to absorb that large group of kids who really struggle, the system is just not large enough to handle it all.”
Walkup said these tragic events, like the fatal police shooting of Adam, can form a moment of sadness for young people, but it can also form a moment that galvanizes their strength.
“In order for anyone to recover from trauma, they have to go through a period where they really suffer. That’s the natural process of recovery,” said Walkup. “Young people can take those difficult life experiences and they turn them into a source of strength. From a mental health point of view, I think it’s really important to take the lessons from these terrible experiences, learn from them and then build off them to make the world a better place.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma. You can find free mental health services by calling the NAMI Chicago helpline at 833-626-4244.
Araceli Gómez-Aldana is a reporter and host at WBEZ. Follow her @Araceli1010.