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Understanding the mental health effects of shared community violence may shed light on wounds that are less conspicuous than property damage and physical injury.  The identification and healing of psychological wounds is a critical component in a suffering community such as Ferguson, MO.  On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson.  Community members and law enforcement were exposed to burning buildings, lootings, gunfire, attacks with weapons such as Molotov cocktails, rocks, bricks, bottles, and verbal threats during some of the ensuing protests and again after the reading of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Wilson. To de-escalate the violence, the police force responded with multiple tactics including, at times, smoke bombs and tear gas. The prolonged violence during the weeks and months following the shooting occurred in the larger context of a community struggling with crime, poverty, and racism (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015; St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 2015).

We asked residents of Ferguson and surrounding towns as well as law enforcement officers who were exposed to the violence during protests to participate in a survey designed to assess the extent of their exposure and resultant posttraumatic stress and depressive symptoms as well as anger reactions.  We found that the pathways leading from various aspects of trauma exposure to different types of distress were remarkably similar irrespective of membership in the resident group or law enforcement.  The strongest predictor of posttraumatic distress symptoms, depression, and elevated anger was the amount of fear that the individual experienced during the violence.  Also noteworthy, participants similarly reported that the media portrayal of the events was a significant predictor of all measured aspects of psychological distress.   The independent and significant contribution of media’s reporting of events to participants’ psychological distress speaks to the need for increased accountability for accurate, factual, and balanced coverage.

We had hypothesized that the proximity to violence during protests would be a stronger predictor of distress in White residents as compared to Black residents because the events in Ferguson would likely be highly salient to Black participants regardless of proximity.  However, again, we found no moderation of race of our pathways from proximity to violence to resultant psychological distress with the exception of life interruptions.  Black participants’ distress was high regardless of interruptions to life, while White participants’ distress increased with the amount of life interruptions caused by the violence (can’t get to work, property damage). 

Finally, the level of reported distress in this community as a whole is significant.  Based on self-report, clinical cutoffs (suggesting likely PTSD, depression, and elevated anger) were exceeded by significantly more residents than law enforcement.  Within the resident sample, Black participants exceeded clinical cutoffs for PTSD and depression more than White participants.  Taken as a whole, reactions to the violence in Ferguson following the shooting of Michael Brown are complex and must be considered in the larger context of on-going racial conflict, poverty, high crime rates, and educational and occupational disadvantage.  This study’s results speak to the acute and significant reactions to shared violence occurring within a single community and demonstrate that the effects of violence are a common experience that transcends a host of individual variables. The provision of a full range of easily accessible and evidence-based mental health services is likely a key component to healing in Ferguson and beyond.

Reference Article 

Galovski, T. E., Peterson, Z. D., Beagley, M. C., Strasshofer, D. R., Held, P., & Fletcher, T. D. (2016). Exposure to Violence During Ferguson Protests: Mental Health Effects for Law Enforcement and Community Members. Journal of Traumatic Stress, n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1002/jts.22105

Discussion questions

  1. The pathways to symptoms of PTSD and depression appear to be similar across community members and law enforcement.  However, significant differences in levels of distress also emerged.  What risk and protective factors might contribute to these differences in distress?
  2. What are some factors to consider when treating PTSD within a context of ongoing violence and multiple psychosocial stressors?

Author Biography

Tara E. Galovski, PhD is a clinical psychologist and conducted this research as an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri- St. Louis and the co-director of the Center for Trauma Recovery affiliated with the university.  She has recently taken the position of Director of the Women’s Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD, VA Boston healthcare System.