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August 19, 2022

How to manage the mental health effects of social injustice

Mental Health Injustice

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For many people in the Philadelphia region, a “normal” day can mean seeing or experiencing discrimination, food insecurity, or violence. Much of the time, these social injustices are not brought to light, leaving those suffering from them feeling hopeless and powerless to change anything.

Then there are tragedies so horrific and incomprehensible that they move beyond local and community awareness to national conversation. This was the case with George Floyd, the 46-year-old African American man whose May 2020 death sparked national protests when an officer held his knee on George’s neck during an arrest at a convenience store. The anniversary of his death reminds us of the painful year of 2020. We are also reminded that we have become more attuned to seeing tragedy and injustice. For example, a devastating home fire may trigger thoughts of inequity. We may notice who receives treatment and testing for COVID-19 and who does not, making us consider differences in access to care. Overall, our awareness has increased.

Social Injustice and Mental Health

It is important to consider the impact of all that we see. Witnessing or hearing about traumatic events can lead to complicated emotions, feelings of helplessness, anger, sadness, shame, and guilt. After experiencing an unsettling, painful event, either personally or through media, many children and adults dream about it. They re-experience the images, sounds, and feelings. People often find themselves replaying in their minds events that disturbed them.

Figuring out the best way to deal with exposure to painful events is complicated. But we don't have to process them alone. Tragedies like the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, fatally shot by officers during a drug raid, placed a spotlight on social injustice and touched off protests that officers were not being held accountable. But it also showed us how communities can support each other. In response to the loss of Taylor's life, people came together; they discovered their personal sense of agency, and they sought support. We can use these same tools to cope with the ongoing stream of painful events we observe in person and in the media.

Avoid Suffering in Silence: Talk About the Experience

When there is pain, many of us tend to withdraw and bury our feelings, but difficult emotions need to be expressed, and supportive relationships and community can help foster that expression. Following the death of Breonna Taylor, communities of varying backgrounds came together to give words to their pain and trauma. The grief and anguish were profound, but these feelings were transformed into words and narratives. People shared their experiences, which others validated.

As we are constantly bombarded with images of injustice and pain, it is crucial to engage our children in dialogue about their feelings, and talk about our feelings with close friends, in journaling, or with a therapist.

Move to Action

Pain can be immobilizing, and when tragedy seems constant, it can result in feelings of helplessness or a loss of agency. “Say Her Name” was one phrase that reverberated on social media. This demand for acknowledgement and justice for Breonna Taylor was a movement from a passive stance to an active stance.

Social injustices are all around us. We must find ways to explore our own biases, educate our children about injustice, advocate for others, and form more connected communities.

Seek Support

More Americans sought mental health support during 2020 and 2021, not only in response to COVID-19 but also because of the tragedies that we collectively witnessed. Mental health became a leading topic, and people began to recognize the urgency of attending to their mental health.

It is essential that we do not become so numb to tragedy that we ignore or attempt to minimize its effects. We all must continue to seek support through trusted relationships or through mental health services. As exposure to pain and injustice persists, caring for our mental health remains vital.

If You Need Help

For more information about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

This content was originally published on IBX Insights.

About Tiffany N. Brown, Ph.D.

Dr. Tiffany N. Brown is a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical faculty member at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her doctorate from Howard University and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Penn Medicine. A practicing psychologist, she seeks to help individuals and couples understand and overcome obstacles and heal from the wounds that interfere with living a fulfilling life. Dr. Brown also works with organizations and teams to provide mental health education via workshops, speaking engagements, and private consultations.

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