Strong, M.D., and Wengel, M.D., are Omaha natives and faculty in the department of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Strong is UNMC’s interim director of inclusion, and Wengel is assistant vice chancellor for campus wellness for UNMC and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
By now, most of us have seen the videos. A black man named George Floyd, slowly dying, pleading for his life, with a white policeman’s knee on his neck.
Here in our own city, a young black man named James Scurlock, just 22, a father with a baby of his own, shot dead after a struggle on an Old Market street. The county attorney said the man who pulled the trigger, who is white, wouldn’t be charged, that it was self-defense (now the case may go to a grand jury). It was a story with its own unique circumstances, officials explained.
Its ending was one we already knew by heart.
And in this city, and cities across the country, we see videos of people in the streets, protesting. Protesting these two deaths, and so many others.
In Omaha, there has been a curfew in the night, and tear gas on the news. A family is grieving, a community is hurting.
When we see, and hear, and perhaps even participate in these events, it takes an emotional toll.
As psychiatrists, we talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and what happens to us when our human needs are not met. In plain language, this means that at this moment many of us are anxious, we are fearful, we are stressed.
We hear your pain. We ask you to extend your ear to others who are in pain.
Because if you have been feeling overwhelmed at this time, you are not alone.
Many of us were already feeling on edge. First, there was the COVID-19 pandemic, and its accompanying sickness, death, fear, anxiety, uncertainty and economic hardship. None of that has gone away.
And on top of all of that, now this.
Except, for some, it is not “now this.” For some of us, it has been always this.
That’s the point of these protests.
The images that we see, these feelings that we feel, have been with some of our fellow Americans for the entirety of their adult lives.
And for some, into childhood, too.
Some of us are carrying a weight that others of us can never know.
Structural and institutional racism still exist today, and it would be an insult to your intelligence to not acknowledge that fact.
Even some of us who weren’t too sure this was true before are now starting to acknowledge that fact, after these last few weeks.
We’ve seen the video. By now, we’ve all seen the videos.
People are marching to protest violence by law enforcement, and if we initially doubted them, we now see viral videos of it happening right before our eyes, to the people protesting it, in real time.
Yes, some of these images have been inspiring — law enforcement and citizens coming together in solidarity. Protesters protecting windows from being broken. People risking their health, perhaps even their lives, in the time of COVID-19, to stand shoulder to shoulder with one another for what they know is right.
Police officers kneeling with protesters and extending hugs have helped to instill hope that justice may prevail someday.
But, in many of these same cities, an hour after these inspiring images, maybe two, we also see people being smoke bombed, tear gassed, tasered, shoved and struck by those who swore to serve and protect.
We see these images and it takes an emotional toll.
There are too many of these videos.
We’re fighting two viruses. Two pandemics hitting us simultaneously. Many of us are wondering when this COVID-19 crisis will be over, after a hard several months. But events of the last few weeks remind us, this other virus has been with us for 400 years.
It’s enough to make you tired.
As psychiatrists, we can tell you we hear you. That your feelings are valid, and very real. As psychiatrists, we tell you to take advantage of mental health services, like the Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Our advice is to lend an ear to others who are hurting. Share. Listen.
And, always, have hope.
And extend grace.
Because, while we are all tired, we must realize that some of us are carrying a weight others of us can never truly know.