katherine helm mental health
“We Want to Live” rally held in South Seattle on June 7, 2020. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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TW: This article contains graphic details about depression. To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call 800-273-8255. To seek a culturally competent mental health professional, call the Black Mental Health Alliance at 410 338-2642.

By Dr. Katherine Helm, Ph.D., Mental Health Columnist
I was recently asked to discuss the mental health impact of urban terrorism on Black communities on the Perri Small Midday Madness show on WVON, 1680am, Chicago.

Definitions of urban terrorism discuss examples like the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. However, what’s left out of these examples are the terrorist acts that occur all over the US in inner cities and rural communities such as gang violence, child abuse, the impact of multigenerational poverty and joblessness, addictions and domestic violence, all things that disproportionally impact some African American communities. This too, is urban terrorism.

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Physical Consequences of Urban Terrorism

The impact of living in a constant state of fear and stress is significant. Physical consequences include having one’s body remain in a consistent state of fight or flight, which includes monitoring the environment for threats and an increase of stress hormones (cortisol) in the body.

Living in this physical state can and does shorten one’s life expectancy as the body is in a constant state of stress. Additionally, when we live in fight or flight, the body’s immune system response is significantly decreased, so our ability to fight diseases is reduced.

Mental Health Consequences of Urban Terrorism

Ultimately, there’s a multitude of mental health consequences for those who live in physically and/or emotionally unsafe environments. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one. PTSD includes struggling with flashbacks of traumatic episodes, nightmares, memory/concentration issues, irritability, constantly reliving one’s fears during waking hours, and a lack of trust in others. One is always living in fear of past and future traumas.

Depression is another consequence which can show up as anger, irritability, sadness, tearfulness, hopelessness, helplessness, lack of motivation, sleep issues, and an inability to find joy in anything or anyone.

Anxiety is a third consequence, in which one constantly worries about the next bad thing that might happen to them or others around them. Lastly, people may fear leaving their homes. Sadly, for those living in environments where they are being terrorized, this is a realistic fear.

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Behavioral health professionals and paramedics on Street Crisis Response Teams are handling non-violent mental health calls instead of police under a San Francisco Department of Public Health pilot program. (Courtesy San Francisco Fire Department via Twitter)

Emotional Consequences of Urban Terrorism

The emotional consequences of living with urban terrorism are tragic. For example, many people do not expect to have long lives and stop dreaming of what their futures might become. Thus, they may stop striving for themselves, their families, and their communities. Others develop significant trust issues and emotionally disconnect from those that love them.

People are often in a constant state of grief and loss and can sometimes become apathetic to their environments, which can cause them to emotionally disconnect from others. In addition, it’s also common to struggle with survivor’s guilt—a phenomenon in which an individual feels guilty for surviving while others died. A person may question their purpose in life, feel like they need to live their lives for the people who “didn’t make it” and cannot stop ruminating over what they might have done to save or protect others. Survivor’s guilt feels emotionally torturous for those who experience it and can leave one to socially isolate themselves from others.

How to Cope?

Ideally, getting out of the unsafe environment is the best way to begin healing, but this is not realistic for many. Some find solace in meditation, prayer, mindfulness, physical activity, and surrounding oneself with positive people.

The tendency is to socially isolate oneself from others, however, appreciating those around you and remaining emotionally connected to those you care about is an important aspect of coping with living in unsafe environments.

Furthermore, getting healthy amounts of sleep and finding joy in the little things in life are important, and understanding that small aspects of self-care are important (doing things you enjoy and help you relax). Finally, seeking counseling can be very helpful in emotional healing and teaching one how to manage the symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and fear. You do not have to manage these things alone.

katherine helm mental health
Dr. Katherine Helm, Ph.D.

BWST columnist Dr. Katherine Helm, PhD is a Professor of Psychology and Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling at Lewis University, Romeoville, IL. She is also a practicing psychologist in part-time private where she sees individuals and couples. Katherine has authored several publications about racial and cultural issues in mental health, couples’ issues, and pedagogy in multicultural courses. She has participated in counselor training at multiple levels. Katherine is a sought-after presenter, professional trainer, clinical supervisor, and author. You can learn more about Katherine at: drkhelmconsulting.com

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