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Videos like the Tyre Nichols footage can be traumatic. An expert shares ways to cope

People attend a candlelight vigil on Thursday in memory of Tyre Nichols at the Tobey Skate Park in Memphis, Tenn.
Scott Olson
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People attend a candlelight vigil on Thursday in memory of Tyre Nichols at the Tobey Skate Park in Memphis, Tenn.

Video footage of the moments leading up to Tyre Nichols' death, for which five Memphis police officers have been charged, is expected to be released later Friday.

Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and expert on race-based trauma, said videos containing violence and death are incredibly stressful and should be viewed sparingly.

"Seeing things that happen like this to other people from your community broadly can have some traumatizing effects, especially if you're part of a stigmatized of minoritized group that's often dealing with trauma like this," Williams told NPR.

Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was beaten severely after being pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving on Jan. 7. He died in a hospital three days later.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said the recordings, which include body cam, dash cam and other surveillance footage, will be made public out of transparency sometime after 7 p.m. ET Friday. But she warned that the incident was "heinous, reckless and inhumane."

Here are some helpful reminders on how to cope.

Remember, you don't have to watch the video to stay informed about the case

Williams' main advice is to not watch the footage if you can.

"This is really the message I want people to have: Don't watch them," she said. "If you want to watch it, you should ask yourself, why do I want to watch this?"

She understands some people may be obligated to see it, depending on their job or connection to the case, but for the vast majority of people, violent videos tend to do more harm than good.

Williams added that there are other ways to stay informed on the case without seeing graphic videos or images, which tend to have a stronger effect on the brain than simply reading an article about it.

"These videos are not good for your mental health and they don't make us a better society," Williams said.

Before the footage is released, check in with yourself

In anticipation of the video and descriptions around it, Williams urges people to pause to assess how much information they can handle.

"Anxious or stressed or nervous? These might be good signs that you want to take it easy and maybe you don't need to watch it," she said.

Williams also recommends digesting the news and content in moderation depending on how they are feeling.

"People can wait until they feel ready. They don't have to do it right now," she said. "Or they can decide that they only want a small amount of information about what happened."

Signs of stress and trauma can show up immediately or in a few weeks

People can experience forms of post-traumatic stress disorder from watching distressing videos, Williams said. Those symptoms include trouble sleeping, having images replaying in your mind, or feeling jumpy, restless or moody.

Sometimes, those symptoms do not show up until later.

Williams pointed to a 2018 study in The Lancet about police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of Black Americans. Research showed that Black people continued to be affected by a fatal encounter between police and an unarmed Black person months after first hearing about it.

Feeling numb can also be a sign of trauma and it should be taken as seriously as other symptoms, Williams added.

Lean on people you can trust and who can relate to how you're feeling

One of the best ways to deal with this kind of trauma is to talk to other people.

"Have conversations with people who get it and who are going to be a source of support and comfort," Williams said.

It is also important to "rebalance your sense of equilibrium," by taking time out of the office, going on a walk or a drive and spending time away from the news cycle and social media, she added.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.