Following the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray, a large protest was held in Baltimore on April 25th. Following Gray’s funeral on April 27th, the protests turned violent with the unrest escalating into rioting, looting, and the burning of local businesses. This violent turn culminated in the declaration of a state of emergency and the deployment of the Maryland National Guard. A curfew was put in place, school trips were delayed, and public venue events were cancelled. The people of Baltimore were filled with fear, with good reason.
Fear is a strong emotion that causes a chemical reaction in the brain as the primitive instincts prepare to either fight or flee. In this situation, the citizens have not necessarily been exposed to physical danger, just the vicarious danger of living in a city imploding with fear and anger. This type of situation has the potential to lead to mental health issues most often associated with complex trauma and grief. In Baltimore, this secondary trauma was initiated by a loss of trust when an authority figure erred, allowing the death of a person in his custody. This led to a violent reaction within the community including rioting, vandalism, and looting. Stress levels were further increased by the government reaction of instituting a curfew and deploying the National Guard. While the government reaction should have allayed fears, these actions, when combined with the media attention directed at Baltimore, simply incited stronger emotional reactions. This chain of events created the opportunity for people to experience real fear at high levels with continual exposure through the media.
The riots in Baltimore are nearly textbook examples of the causes of secondary traumatic stress disorder (STDS). Contributing factors to STDS include: how graphic the exposure is, how repeated the exposure is, and how it violates a person’s expectation or understanding of how the world works. Secondary trauma is no less traumatic or poignant. The fear is just as real. The chemical reactions inside the brain are the same. The body reacts the same. Therefore, the treatment for the trauma needs to be the same, complex and comprehensive.
Symptoms of secondary traumatic stress disorder include: hyper vigilance, hopelessness, sleeplessness, chronic exhaustion, anxiety, guilt, social withdrawal, anger, bereavement, and severe depression. Symptoms can occur immediately or over the course of several weeks. Symptoms may not be immediately recognizable as coping strategies will develop concurrently such as substance abuse, chemical dependency, self-injurious behaviors, or eating disorders.
If you are experiencing the symptoms of STSD or any of the coping strategies mentioned, you may need to seek professional treatment or help with emotional regulation. It may be necessary to decrease your personal level of connectivity to reduce excess exposure. Consider finding a support group or, if necessary, see professional help. Treatment options exist and include psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy, counseling, and support groups. These treatment options are available in both residential treatment facilities and outpatient treatment centers.