As people all over the world march against racial injustice and police brutality, adamant in their calls for change, the TV world is on less sure footing. Television can be an escapist treat, but it can also be a reflection of reality, and now — perhaps more than ever — there's a huge need to address harsh truths about the world onscreen. But where does that leave viewers, especially those who might be triggered by what they see? As Hollywood figures out how to portray police brutality and racist violence responsibly, mental health experts are explaining ways TV audiences can cope with trauma.
The recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade have spotlighted the sickening reality of racist police brutality the Black community has been decrying for centuries. Now, movements to combat systemic racism and police violence against Black people in the U.S. — like calls for defunding the police and widespread demands for violent cops to be arrested and charged — are seeing more support than ever.
Also getting much more attention: How television has shaped the public perception of law enforcement. Orange Is the New Black, which focused on the corruption within prison systems throughout the series, shocked viewers in its 2016 Season 4 finale, which saw a prison guard suffocate a Black inmate to death — a scene that poignantly echoed the tragic killing of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014. More recently, the final season of 13 Reasons Why included a protest against the police that aired in June 2020, the same time as similar protests were occurring across the U.S. For many viewers, scenes in fictional shows like these can provide insight into what's happening in reality.
Therapist and author Thea Monyeé, LMFT, says these types of hard-to-watch TV moments can also help viewers learn more about themselves. "Sometimes these triggers can let us know about something unhealed that needs to be explored, that needs to be resolved, or just put into context or experienced," she tells Elite Daily. "If we were to see a scene similar to what happened to George Floyd now, even if the people are non-Black, because they had to witness it and they've seen the outpouring of it, they're going to have an emotional response. And that brings up some awareness. That can be new insight or new information."
The danger of watching a traumatic television scene, as clinical psychologist Dr. Cindy Graham, Ph.D., explains, is that someone who has experienced a similar trauma to what is depicted might find themselves "re-experiencing the initial event coupled with what you're seeing on TV." Watching fictional trauma can re-trigger symptoms in individuals with PTSD, such as anxiety, isolation, hostility, insomnia, and a host of other symptoms.
Graham explains even viewers who have not experienced a specific type of trauma themselves can still feel traumatized by graphic scenes. "It can create what we call vicarious trauma," Graham says. "It's basically a secondhand trauma that you really can develop those symptoms of PTSD. It can be anything from anger, anxiety, depression, paranoia. If it's really occurring quite regularly, it can then also result in some significant physical concerns, like heart-related problems."
Give yourself permission to look away.
Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself when a traumatic scene appears on your screen. If you feel yourself becoming agitated, Graham recommends doing a body scan to take inventory of how you're responding to the scene, focusing on taking deep, slow breaths. This can help you re-center yourself in reality, rather than whatever is on your screen. Then, you can further re-focus your attention on the real world by taking stock of your surroundings: "What are five things that you can see, four things that you can hear, one thing that you can taste? All these different things help ground you in the moment and pull you back out of the fiction that is going on around you," Graham explains.
Of course, the simplest option when dealing with a negative response is to just walk away or turn the TV off. Monyeé recommends people who have experienced the trauma being shown on TV actually stop watching, since it has the potential to be harmful rather than eye-opening, as it could be for someone unfamiliar with said trauma. "Give yourself permission to look away," Monyeé says. "We know what it looks like. We know what it feels like. You don't have to prove to anybody that you know." But an important follow-up action to looking away is to then examine what specifically triggered you about the scene. Monyeé recommends initiating a conversation with a partner, friend, or family member after encountering a traumatic scene to explore what caused your reaction.
Sometimes even [a] positive presentation can still stand to evoke a trauma response.
Often, spotting a possible trigger in a TV show is straightforward, like when a show portrays graphic violence or blatant racism. But Graham emphasizes that seemingly innocuous TV moments can also elicit a traumatic response. For instance, shows that glorify police officers as protagonists can often trigger a person who's been traumatized by police brutality, even if characters aren't shown using excessive or unwarranted force. "Sometimes even the more positive presentation can still stand to evoke a trauma response," Graham notes.
The oversaturated genre of police-led TV is also troubling from a historical context. "[These shows] eat at this myth around who police are, and this negation of the true history of policing," Monyée says, pointing out that policing in the U.S. originated as a job targeting Black people during the time of slavery. The newfound increased awareness of the trauma surrounding police brutality and racist violence could hopefully lead to more care in how graphic scenes are depicted, and how TV shows portray cops.
"If you want to do a show on policing, let's do a show about the history of it ... Let's do a show about the origins of it," Monyée offers. "What we have to do is say, 'How would we keep everybody feeling good, feeling connected?'"
With the recent cancellation of long-running police shows Cops and Live PD, and the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine donating to bail funds and reworking scripts after facing backlash for its lighthearted portrayal of police officers, TV may be taking a step in the right direction. But trauma comes in many forms, and you can't control what's written into a TV show. What you can do, though, is prioritize yourself and your mental health, no matter what's on your screen.
Mental Health Resources:
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264).
- Ayana Therapy: An app that connects marginalized patients with therapists who match their identities. Thea Monyée recommended this resource in association with this piece.
- Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM): An online collective dedicated to breaking down barriers to Black healing. This resource has been recommended by Mental Health America.
- Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI): A nonprofit that has launched various programs to help protect and advance the wellness of Black women. The site features a stress test that is particularly helpful in association with topics discussed in this piece.
- The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS): A multidisciplinary organization that researches traumatic stress and provides resources for survivors of traumatic stress. The organization's website houses a clinician directory to help survivors of traumatic stress find the clinician, counselor, or mental health professional best suited for them.
- The Loveland Foundation: A foundation born from Rachel Cargle’s social media movement to raise money for Black women and girls to receive therapy. The website disperses funds to Black women and girls to pay for therapy sessions with mental health professionals.
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network: An interactive directory that helps connect queer and trans people of color with therapists of similar backgrounds. The network was founded by consultant and psychotherapist Erica Woodland.
- The Safe Place: An app focused on providing mental health tips and resources for the Black community, with a specific focus on coping with police brutality. The app was created by activist Jasmin Pierre.
- Therapy for Black Girls: A website created to discuss mental health topics in a way more relatable and accessible to Black women, with resources like therapist directories and a supportive online community. The site is run by licensed psychologist Dr. Joy Harden Bradford.
Dr. Cindy Graham, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Thea Monyeé, LMFT, therapist and author