In the past two weeks, residents in Ferguson have seen familiar businesses broken into and looted, heard gunshots at night and had to drive through police checkpoints to enter their neighborhoods. Some say their trust of law enforcement has been deeply shaken since the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson.
Witnessing violence, feeling one’s safety is threatened and not being able to access usual amenities such as transportation are all stressors that can have an effect on mental health. Many organizations in the Ferguson area have offered free counseling services to residents since the shooting — but it will take much more for the community to fully heal.
Access to Resources
At the Dellwood Community Center, about 150 residents lined up Thursday morning before the doors opened at a new Resource Drop-In Center organized by the United Way.
Cornell Meritt stood with his wife and two granddaughters, ages 3 and 4. One night, the entire family was in their car when they were caught in a riot and tear gassed. But Meritt says every night is traumatic, especially for his grandchildren.
“We can’t leave the house because we stay on West Florissant. They’re just constantly hearing ambulance and police flying up and down the street. But we’re making sure they stay careful,” Meritt said.
Meritt and his wife, Geraldine, say they’re considering moving out of town.
“It’s bad that we can’t go nowhere without being harassed, or we’ve got to be in the house at a certain time. I’m just really frustrated. And with the looters, I’m nervous in my home,” Geraldine Meritt said.
The center is able to serve 300 people every day, to help take care of their basic needs. A mobile unit outside provides medical checkups and prescription refills, while organizations inside provide supplies for those who have been unable to shop where they normally would.
Ashley Gannon of the United Way says public transportation has been limited since the protests began. She says at least one resident lost her job because she couldn’t get to work on time.
“She works in South City, so she has to catch the bus at night,” Gannon said. “With so many nights of the violence happening and it being unsafe, she was unable to work and unfortunately lost her job.”
In a separate room within the center, about a dozen volunteers provide free counseling. AME Pastor Terence Small is one of them.
“I’m anticipating anything from family issues, educational issues … employment concerns,” Small said. “Of course, issues around the central event here, with the shooting of Michael Brown -- particularly with some of the young men and some of the parents, and their concerns.”
Pastor Small says he’s counseling residents through frustration, anger, fear and anxiety.
“An event will be the catalyst, but as we discover in counseling, other things come to the surface,” Small said. “Some of these unmet needs and un-addressed issues are coming to the surface.”
Symptoms of Acute Stress
When a community experiences a traumatic event, residents are at a greater risk of developing symptoms of acute stress disorder — the precursor to PTSD.
Those symptoms include severe anxiety, re-experiencing a violent incident and feelings of detachment from reality. According to Saint Louis University psychology professor Terri Weaver, detachment feels like walking through a haze, or looking at the world through a hazy lens.
“It’s sort of an eerie sort of feeling that people can have when their stress is very, very high,” Weaver said.
Weaver says the risk is even higher for communities like Ferguson, where there are disparities along racial and socioeconomic lines, as well as a distrust of law enforcement.
“It’s a cumulative and chronic impact on a person’s health and well-being,” Weaver said. “You think about parents and their concerns for their children. These concerns and micro-experiences erode a person’s sense of safety.”
And while people whose lives are directly threatened or who witness violent incidents are most likely to develop symptoms of acute stress disorder, many Ferguson residents are dealing with a disruption in their daily lives.
“Now you can’t access those resources that are already limited as it is,” Weaver said. “You also have to see the damage and destruction, which is a tangible representation of everything that’s going on.”
There are some parallels between the Ferguson protests and the civil unrest that erupted in South Central Los Angeles in 1992, after four white police officers were acquitted after severely beating Rodney King, an African-American man.
King survived, but the incident sparked five days of violent protests that killed 53 people.
Six months after the riots, researchers from the University of Florida interviewed Los Angeles County residents and published a study about how many of them experienced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In the survey, many respondents who reported PTSD symptoms had experienced losses in their neighborhood such as businesses, medical clinics and places to shop. Of those who had experienced loss, 27.5 percent reported flashbacks or re-living the experience, 11.3 percent reported avoidance symptoms such as feeling distant from others, and 22.5 percent reported difficulties sleeping or increased vigilance. Overall, 7.6 percent of respondents who had experienced neighborhood losses also reported a current PTSD diagnosis.
Only 3 percent of people who had no neighborhood losses reported symptoms severe enough for a diagnosis.
“The longer things go on, the more likely there might be neighborhood losses, the more likely there is to be loss of services, and the more likely people might be exposed to repeated experiences,” Weaver said.
“It’s just cumulative. And the cumulative impact of stress is more destabilizing.”
Weaver adds that the protests themselves are unlikely to be a source of stress: Instead, it’s the extent to which they become violent or result in property damage.
“Having peaceful opportunities to verbalize concerns about injustice, those can be very helpful to people’s mental health functioning. Particularly when they feel like it gives them an opportunity to shine a light on areas that they feel have been unjust,” Weaver said.
Finding Peace in Difficult Times
Amid the chaos, Ferguson residents are finding their own ways to cope.
19-year-old Rolanda Robinson lives about three blocks from where most of the protests are. Over the past week, she’s heard shots in the night multiple times.
“We’ve been OK but it’s disturbing. You know, you jump out your sleep at night, you’re shaking, don’t know what’s really going on. It sounds like it’s right outside your window,” Robinson said.
But instead of avoiding the protests, Robinson and her family pull out a grill and serve hot dogs to people on the street over the dinner hour. They take donations, but Robinson says she uses a lot of her own money for supplies.
“I just feel like I’m being a help to others by giving out free food and free water. I feel like somebody has to do it, if nobody does it, who’s going to do it? Somebody has to be peaceful somewhere, positive somewhere. Right?”
Tell us what you know
How do you discuss race in your home or your classroom? Please respond through our Public Insight Network.
St. Louis Public Radio uses this journalism tool to solicit knowledge and insight from people who become sources through the Network. Share your experience.