Management of race in psychotherapy and supervision


Dr. Myra Mathis, an addictions fellow in the department of psychiatry at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Dr. Myra Mathis

As is true of drivers managing a blind spot, what is required is for the drivers – the supervisors – to lean forward or reposition themselves so as to avoid collisions, maintain safety, and continue on course. We use this metaphor because it is understood that any clinician providing psychodynamic supervision to psychiatry residents, regardless of professional discipline, has the requisite skills and training.10-13

Until May 25, we thought eliminating blind spots would be effective. But, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, our eyes have been opened.

We are encouraged by the global protests and initial actions to reform law enforcement, but we realize that medicine is in need of reform. Hiding behind the blue wall of silence is an establishment that has looked the other way while black and brown women, men, and children have come to live in fear as a result of the state-sanctioned violence that repeatedly occurs across the nation. Excessive police use of force is a public health issue of crisis magnitude. However, the house of medicine, like many other established structures in society, has colluded with the societal constructs that have supported law enforcement by remaining willfully blind, often neutral, and by refusing to make the necessary adjustments, including connecting the dots between police violence and physical and mental health.

For example, racism has never been listed even in the index of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.14 Being the victim of police use of force is not generally regarded as an adverse childhood experience, even though communities that are heavily policed experience harassment by law enforcement on a regular basis. The 12 causes of trauma listed on the website15 of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network – bullying, community violence, complex trauma, disasters, early childhood trauma, intimate partner violence, medical trauma, physical abuse, refugee trauma, sexual abuse, terrorism and violence, and traumatic grief – do not include maltreatment, abuse, or trauma resulting from interactions with members of law enforcement. Much of the adverse childhood experiences literature focuses on white, upper middle class children and on experiences within the home. When community level experiences, such as discrimination based on race or ethnicity, are included, as in the Philadelphia ACES study,16 as many as 40% reported ACE scores of greater than 4 for community level exposures.

As psychiatrists, we recognize the psychic underpinnings and parallels between the psychic projections onto black and brown people and the actual bullets pumped into the bodies of black and brown people; there is a lurid propensity to use these others as repositories. Those who have the privilege of being protected by law enforcement and the ability to avoid being used as containers for the psychic projections and bullets of some police officers also have the privilege of compartmentalizing and looking the other way when excessive acts of force – projections and projectiles – are used on other human beings. This partly explains why the injuries and deaths of black and brown people caused by police officers’ excessive use of force have continued even though these unjustified deaths are widely televised and disseminated via various social media platforms.

Prior to the death of George Floyd on May 25, other than the American Public Health Association, the National Medical Association (NMA) was the only major medical organization to issue a call to consider police use of force as a public health issue. In its July 2016 press release, provided in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police officers, the NMA summarized the scope of injuries citizens sustain during “the pre-custody (commission of a crime, during a fight, chase, and apprehension, during a siege or hostage situation, or during restraint or submission), custody (soon after being admitted to jail, during interrogation, during incarceration, or legal execution), and post-custody (revenge by police or rival criminals or after reentry into the community)” periods. It is noteworthy that the scope of these injuries is comparable to those encountered in a combat zone.17,18 According to the NMA:

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