Video of the violent arrest of Tyre Nichols, which officials released Friday, will be difficult to watch – but it may also be hard to avoid. Some people might even feel duty-bound to watch it as a way to pay tribute to Nichols, who died three days after the confrontation with officers.
Psychologists say the best approach to care for mental health is to know your limits – and possibly to avoid watching the video altogether.
David Rausch, chief of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said he was “sickened” by what was found during the investigation into the 29-year-old father’s encounter with Memphis police. Five Memphis officers were fired for violating policies on excessive use of force, duty to intervene and duty to render aid, the department said. They’ve also been indicted on charges that include second-degree murder and kidnapping.
The video might seem unavoidable online and on social media, but you might need to do so for your own mental health, said Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, who is an expert on racial discrimination and psychological outcomes.
“We have agency over what we ingest. These videos never help us to understand why this would happen,” Anderson said.
Humans are drawn to violence, she said, and some people may even think that by watching the video, they will see something that will explain the behavior.
“But there’s never a good explanation here,” Anderson said.
Research shows that frequent exposure to violent news events can cause negative stress reactions. Even witnessing vicarious violence can raise a person’s sense of anxiety and fear and, in some cases, lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is important to bear witness and to acknowledge what happened, but that doesn’t mean an obligation to watch the video itself, Anderson said.
“We can lift the person’s name up, hashtag, organize ideas. This ensures that we remember that name, that we’re calling out that person’s name, and there are ways to lift the spirit, the name, the incident without sharing the trauma,” she said.
Dr. Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and expert on racial trauma, law enforcement and community trauma, agreed that everyone doesn’t need to watch a violent video.
“We can read a description of the events. We live in a violent culture, and serving around these clips as entertainment only really makes us more violent. I don’t think the solution is ‘let’s all watch and gawk and stoke our outrage.’ We are outraged enough already without the added trauma of searing these images into our minds,” she said.
“You have to think about the toll that this takes on your humanity,” Williams said. “I really discourage it, because I don’t think that this really gives dignity to the person who is deceased.”
“I oftentimes tell people to know yourself before you consume the content, because everybody responds to these types of images differently,” said Turner, who is an expert in the effects of witnessing police violence on social media and on the perception of police bias in communities of color. “Some people can see it and they can be sort of OK. Other people, it could trigger some really strong emotions.”
“If you do decide to watch the video, be prepared to be stressed, and take care of yourself,” he added.
To help manage such stress, have a support system of people to talk to so you can process events. Or look to activism as a way to channel that energy in a way that can make a difference.
Activism itself can also bring exposure to another level of potential violence and trauma, however, so Turner says it’s important to do something enjoyable that can give you a break like dancing, listening to music or being a part of a religious or spiritual community.
“Don’t hold those emotions inside,” he said. Therapy can be a good place to process difficult events.
Parents and others who care for children may need to prepare for their questions.
Parents should try to anticipate their kids’ response to seeing or hearing about the video and how to talk about it, Turner said. Will the child be numb to it after seeing so many violent images? Will they be upset? Are they going to be afraid for their parents or for themselves?
“Make sure you can support them and comfort them,” he said.
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Anderson said it’s important to talk to children at all ages.
“It is up to a parent, like they would for any other topic, to make it developmentally appropriate,” she said.
Parents should check their own emotions to make sure they’re in a good place, Turner added, because it’s an opportunity to have a productive conversation.
“It can be difficult to comfort them in this type of situation, but you don’t want to have this conversation and then not give them some hope or some encouragement that things can change,” he said. “We can still do some work around these issues.”