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Ferguson Psychologist Describes Helping Residents Through Trauma


Video of Eric Garner's arrest in New York, pictures of the rioting and burned buildings in Missouri - those images and sounds have put many people on edge, especially in Ferguson. In response, the St. Louis Association of Black Psychologists has been offering free counseling services at churches and other places around the city. Dr. Marva Robinson is a clinical psychologist and president of the group. She told me that conversations about race are a regular part of the work she's doing in the community.

MARVA ROBINSON: There's a group of protesters I worked with. And there is a black male in particular who has really just become overwhelmed with knowing that nothing he does, whether it's peaceful or yelling, has changed what has happened. And he described to me feeling as if he is underwater. He said, have you ever felt as if your entire body was submerged, and you just can't breathe, and you don't know when you'll make it to the surface? He said, that's how I feel, that my skin color stops others from treating me fairly when it comes to law enforcement, when it comes to the justice system. And I fear what will happen to my children. And so it's those conversations, very difficult conversations, about race and justice that is a major part of the treatment that we do.

CORNISH: Now, recently in and around Ferguson, schools have been closed. At times, neighborhood streets may be congested with protesters, as we mentioned, some of those images on TV of riots. What are you hearing from parents about their kids, about how children are being affected?

ROBINSON: Oh, my goodness. One of the children that I had been treating prior to this - I saw her after the grand jury announcement. And she continued to repeat, the Little Caesars burned down. The Little Caesars burned down. And so seeing that image and knowing that this particular pizza place was her every weekly Friday night treat - and now it's gone - was very hard for her to deal with. And so Mom has had a tough time in explaining to her what happened. She's had a tough time with getting her to bed at night. She's been having some flashbacks about the image that she saw on the news. And so parents have a really big battle ahead of them with being age-appropriate in how they explain this to their children, but also acknowledging that children are hurting, as well.

CORNISH: What has been your advice to parents who are trying to decide whether and how to talk to their kids about what they might be hearing about the deaths of Michael Brown or even Eric Garner in the news?

ROBINSON: I do encourage parents to have that conversation. And I do that because I think parents need to be the ones who control the narrative of what their children hear because their child will go to school, or may watch the news or go to a friend's house, and the subject will come up. So if parents are the ones who can engage that conversation first, then they are the ones who can kind of give children the language that they will use to navigate the conversations.

CORNISH: What kind of long-term concerns do you have for people in this community, especially as the debate and protests stretch on?

ROBINSON: I have significant concerns about long-term damage. I worry about the nightmares that will continue a year from now. I am concerned about walls and barriers that people will start to build as defense mechanisms. And my biggest concern is I don't think that we, as institutions, are paying enough attention to the mental health impact of what has happened in Ferguson and throughout our nation - because how we function, how we see people, how we relate to strangers, how we choose to engage or not, are all factors as a result of our psychological functioning. And I don't think there's been enough attention and treatment to that honestly.

CORNISH: Marva Robinson, thank you so much for talking with us.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

CORNISH: Marva Robinson - she's a licensed clinical psychologist and president of the St. Louis Association of Black Psychologists. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.