George Floyd, race, and psychiatry: How to talk to patients


Now we’ve laid the framework, in terms of what we’re feeling. Let’s move on to why you and I are in this profession, and that’s our patients. What are you seeing on the front lines? What are you seeing with our patients?

Dr. Newsome: I was speaking with one of my black male patients, and he was fearful. He had been perfectly fine, even in the COVID crisis, he was doing well. But when you get this milieu of police violence, now he’s feeling this intense fear. Should I be walking alone at night? What happens if I am the one who is at the wrong place at the wrong time?

I also find that some of my nonminority patients sometimes find difficulty making sense of it. Minority individuals already know these things are happening. But some of the nonminorities are wondering how or why would something like this happen in America? This is just how America is for the black folks.

Dr. Norris: Could you elaborate on that? I always found that to be a very interesting dynamic for those who are not minorities or people of color. I will have folks in a psychotherapy session who are just bewildered by events like this. It is not the America they think they know – they are shocked that this is actually what’s going on.

Dr. Newsome: It’s all about experiences. If you didn’t grow up around a lot of minorities, you haven’t necessarily had these conversations. Even speaking for myself, sometimes I don’t want to discuss these things; you never know what you’re going to get. You might find an ally, or you might find someone who isn’t at all supportive. I think the surprise is from lack of exposure. If you don’t have to live through racism, you can most certainly have blinders on and not notice.

Dr. Norris: Can you comment on the fear you’re seeing in some folks? Can it get to the point of reactivating PTSD?

Dr. Newsome: I notice it more with black individuals, a fear that they might be the ones who may die; or with black mothers, wondering, what about my child? Is this what they are going to have to live with for the rest of their lives? Older people would say that we fought already and it’s still going on. What are the fruits of the labor we put in?

Dr. Norris: I agree with you completely. What are the fruits? You’re going to see those strong reactions. You’re going to see fear, you’re going to see anger, and you’re also going to see guilt that they could not stop this. I’m speaking particularly about some of my nonminority patients. It goes along with that confusion. This manifests in a desperate need to do something.

But here’s the problem: You don’t really know what to do because no one is educated on it. And as you said before, race is a very polarized subject. No one even likes to talk about racism because it’s so, oh my goodness. We’ve run away from it so much to the point that we can’t deal with it. Racism, whether or not you witness it, whether or not you participate in it, whether or not you are the subject of it, affects and hurts us all. We all have to start to own that. You can’t just stay siloed, because eventually, it’s going to come back and affect you.

I could easily be Mr. Floyd, but at the same time, due to my station and things of that nature, I have a certain level of privilege and autonomy. There could be a tendency to put your head under the sand, you know, look at how far we’ve come, Barack Obama. But you’ve got to say, no, we still have enormous amounts of work to do.

We’ve been talking about the patients. What have you noticed in your colleagues and how they’ve been feeling about this?

Dr. Newsome: Again, I see them feeling saddened by the events. One of the other things I’ve noticed is that some people are in environments where they have program directors and chairs who will directly condemn certain behaviors and say, “This is racist, this shouldn’t happen.” But then there are other programs that have been more silent. I’ve had people say that this is the first time that they have felt isolated in a long while.

We all participate in these physician WhatsApp groups, and according to some of the comments, people are realizing that these folks that they were just on the front lines with, fighting COVID, are perhaps not the allies that they originally thought they were, based on the things these people are saying.

Dr. Norris: Wow. It’s good that we’re talking about this from the viewpoint of two different generations. You’ve got the WhatsApp group and Google Hangouts and all that kind of good stuff, and I’m still with pagers and such. That’s interesting – the reality that folks you thought were your allies turn out not to be, because you’re bringing up difficult conversations that we don’t normally talk about.

I have noticed that some people around me have been silent because they don’t know what to say. They’re so concerned that I’m going to be offended or they’re going to hurt me or say the wrong thing, so they stay quiet. As I reflect now, this is the wrong thing to do. Own your concern. I’ve been in two large meetings now, and I’ve had multiple people whom I consider friends say, I wanted to email or text you right then and ask you how you’re doing, but I didn’t because I didn’t know what to say. I have entered meetings recently, and the meeting felt tense, and I’m thinking, what’s going on? And now I realize they did not know what to say or how to approach it.

That’s been a very interesting dynamic and tells us where we are with this. Today, for example, I was pleased to have the support of my dean’s group. I felt I had to speak out, I just had to straight out tell them. Do you want to know what I’m feeling? I’m feeling rage. I’m feeling rage. And you all have to understand that, because I have to speak for those who aren’t necessarily going to be able to express themselves. More importantly, I have to speak for myself and I’m feeling rage.

How our colleagues are processing this and how they’re thinking about this runs the gamut. But I think about people not necessarily knowing what to say or how to approach it. I absolutely agree that with the leadership, you’re going to get many different responses, and sometimes you’re left to wonder, do I have to watch what I say? But I’m definitely supported at my institution.

What else are you seeing out there in terms of your colleagues or how people think about it?

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