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When They See Us - Black America & Complex Trauma

Updated: Jul 3, 2019


Just to think, 5 children were arrested and charged falsely of a crime they didn’t commit. Their parents couldn’t protect them. And with the recent release of the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us”, I’ve heard clients, family members and friends express their pain and confusion (now recognized as symptoms of Complex PTSD) for such a horrific act happening a little less than 30 years ago. The transference of energy amassed by fear, that takes place watching the series has stagnated some, while being all too painful for others to view.


Watching the story of five boys, being imprisoned is just too close to home for many. Identifying that this could happen today propels an anxiety that we seldom see in television.

Yet we are faced with depressing imagery each time we turn on our televisions, computers, tablets, or smartphones. Forced to look at children in cages at our borders, violence in our communities, schools, workplaces, and oftentimes at the hands of police officers prompts viewers to respond with a trauma response. It has become all too much, as we watch and listen in an attempt to be informed. The question is, “what happens to our minds and hearts after they are filled with these heartbreaking images”?


We are left experiencing symptoms what I know as a Mental Health Clinician who happens to also be a Black Professional, that this feeling is powerlessness; the sense that we are unable to fight. And when we feel powerless, how do we combat systems of oppression or stop racism? How do we send our children to school, when school violence has become a regular occurrence? What do we do with these images of horror?


I’ve noticed we tend to respond with trauma response symptoms characteristic of Complex PTSD, by carrying it and ruminate on these faces and situations as potential threats that are right in front of our noses. They distract our workdays. We ignore it or most commonly become numb to it. There are so many negative images, that most people can’t take it anymore. We fill our minds, hearts and souls with sadness that these types of programming erupts without finding ways to deal with it.


We have become powerless and we don’t know how to fight police injustice 30 years after the Exonerated 5. This also is revealed when we are unsure what to do when we hear about immigrant children dying at the borders. We just completely shut down when we see violence in the workplace or another school shooting.

But in these false feelings of helplessness we do have power. Our power comes in recognizing the injustice and the impact it has. Allowing room to talk about it through healthy dialogue is one way. It matters how much we internalize these issues. Being willing to stand up through civic action, voting, donating your time and resources to causes that matter is not only advocacy, but empowers healing.


When the images become overwhelming and too much to bear, it is important to seek out professional help. Sometimes these images trigger traumas that we didn’t know existed. If these images keep you up at night, leading to obsessive thoughts or preventing you from functioning in your day to day life, it's time to seek out professional support to cope.



Adrienne Aaron Pihlgren is a Licensed Professional Counselor with New Leaf Counseling Group, LLC in Charlotte, NC. She specializes in working with other Black Professionals who are looking for support with their mental health symptoms, or even just for some personal growth work. Are you in the Charlotte area and looking for a professional counselor? Follow this link to book with Adrienne today. She has room for you to grow.