Korryn Gaines was killed by Baltimore, MD law enforcement on Monday, August 1, 2016. Since then, several articles and discussions have occurred about her life and the circumstances of her death. Noteworthy is the fact that Korryn is documented to be the 9th Black woman to be killed by American law enforcement this year.
There are many things I do not know about Korryn, and the information I do know is limited to social media, news outlets, and remnants of her own social media posts. With that, there is a lot to be said about the circumstances of Korryn’s death, however so much is unknown and may never be known.
Some time has passed since this incident. I wanted to give myself time to gather information, and ponder over her life and the resulting circumstances before drawing any conclusions. However, it didn’t take long for me to see that mental health has played a major role in the unfolding of events and circumstances. Unfortunately what really prompted me to write about Korryn was the amount of blame attributed to her for her own death and injury of her son. Many believed her actions to be less than ideal and unrespectable. Therefore, many blamed Korryn for this incident because her action did not represent what most of us believe we would have done.
With that, I don’t have the answers, however I am hesitant to place blame on Korryn for her death. Rather, I want to provide a different perspective for what could have happened; one that involves a recognition and understanding of mental health, and more specifically, a framework for understanding how trauma and other stress-related incidents impact our worldview and influences our interactions within society.
What is Trauma?
To begin this discussion, we need to be equipped with a basic understanding of trauma and traumatic stress. Trauma and traumatic stress occur when one is exposed to stressful, dangerous, and/or life-threatening events. Traumatic experiences have the ability to impact social, emotional, and cognitive development, and leads to impairments in the way we socialize, understand our emotions, express our emotions, and interpret the intentions and actions of others. Traumatic experiences alter our entire understanding of what happens around us and has consequences for how we then function in our lives. This is intensified when these experiences occur during childhood and when there are multiple and continuous events (i.e. living in poverty, experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, etc.). Individuals who have experienced traumatic events are more likely to experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, social isolation, paranoia, and even early death.
What is Racial Trauma?
To deepen this discussion, there also needs to be an understanding of racial trauma. Racial trauma can be understood as a subset of trauma, as it specifically addresses traumatic experiences that are related to race, racism, and race-related stressors. Therefore, racial trauma can be defined as racial experiences of real or perceived threat or danger. These experiences can be directly experienced or the witnessing of someone else’s experience. This can also be triggered by hearing about the racial experiences of others. These racial experiences often cause feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, fear of safety, and perceived shortened live expectancy (i.e. “I may not make it to 25 years old.”). Racial trauma rarely involve a single event, and is more likely to be a culmination of racial experiences, resulting in insidious and chronic stress. These racial events include individual racist events, consequences of institutional racism, effects of cultural racism, daily microaggressions, and perceived racism.
It would be difficult to find any person of color who lives in America who has not experienced some sort of racism, or race-related stressor. Therefore, it is likely that many of us experience and are impacted by varying levels of racial trauma. Likewise, it is common to encounter individuals who have experienced other traumatic events at some point in their lives. More frightening is the idea that there are many people of color who experience racial trauma, in addition to other non-racial traumas. This means that there are even more disturbing consequences for their lives.
Was Korryn impacted by trauma?
Based on the small amount of what I have learned about Korryn’s life, I feel comfortable understanding her life as one that may have been impacted by several traumatic events (both racial and otherwise). When I know that someone has experience assaults on their livelihood and experiences that have the potential to alter their ability to live, I begin to have a different level of empathy for their life. This is because trauma is unfair and often unfixable.
It wasn’t fair that Korryn may have been exposed to lead early in her life that had the potential to damage her cognitive and physical livelihood. It wasn’t fair that Korryn was born into conditions that even had the potential to expose her to lead. It wasn’t fair that Korryn felt that her life was in danger and that she needed to protect herself and her family. It wasn’t fair that Korryn was possibly the victim of domestic violence. It wasn’t fair that Korryn may have had a miscarriage while she was in jail. It wasn’t fair that Korryn experienced oppression and felt victimized by law enforcement for being a Black Woman. None of this was fair and all of it was traumatic for Korryn.
It is easy to blame Korryn for the events that led up to her death, but who do we blame for the conditions and experiences of Korryn’s life that altered her physical and mental livelihood? The same behaviors and actions that make it easy for us blame Korryn for her death and injury of her son are directly related to the traumatic experiences that led Korryn’s perception of her environment as one of danger, injustice, and impending doom. There is no one way to respond to traumatic experiences and there is no right reaction to abnormal circumstances. Therefore, I cannot blame Korryn for her actions and reactions to the threatening events and circumstances that occurred within her life.
When I consider the environments that contribute to experiences of paranoia, anxiety, and fear of law enforcement, I realize that society has failed Korryn. When I think about the potential lack of mental health resources afforded to Korryn and people like her, I realize that the mental health profession has failed Korryn. When I considered the reality of thousands of people who are not able to empathize with Korryn’s logic and reasoning, I realize that we continue to fail Korryn and people like her. I wonder how her life would have been different if more people were around to identify and name her mental health symptoms, rather than ignore them. I wonder how her life would have been different if more people were around to validate and support her through these experiences, rather than harass and antagonize. I wonder how Korryn’s life would have been different if the world we lived in was just a little bit better, so that she would not have experienced traumatic stress and alterations in the way she perceives her world. If our world was just a little bit better, she would probably be alive today.
I hope that this perspective of Korryn shifts the conversation from blame to caring, empathy and more advocacy for accessible mental health service. I hope this contributes to increased education about mental health so that we are able to identify the signs and symptoms within ourselves and our loved ones, before it’s too late.
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.