The Fallout From George Floyd's Death: A Conversation On Race for Psychiatrists

Lorenzo Norris, MD

June 10, 2020

Lorenzo Norris, MD, welcomes fourth-year psychiatry resident Brandon C. Newsome, MD, for a discussion on race relations as a physician in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who was killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck during an arrest.

Dr. Newsome was raised in Alabama and currently lives in Boston. He shares his experiences with Dr. Norris in an important conversation.

The pair discuss what their patients are experiencing and what they're experiencing as black physicians.

Dr. Norris is a consultation-liaison psychiatrist and medical school dean affiliated with George Washington University, Washington (@GWSMHS). Dr. Newsome will begin a fellowship in July at Children’s National Hospital (@ChildrensNatl).

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Mr. Nick Andrews: This is the Psychcast, the official podcast of MDedge Psychiatry. I am the voice of the MDedge podcast, Nick Andrews. We are bringing this special edition of the Psychcast from MDedge in response to all of the unrest, peaceful or otherwise, in the United States in the aftermath of the shocking murder of George Floyd in late May of 2020.

Dr Lorenzo Norris agreed to have this "after hours" discussion, believing the most appropriate response would be for us to have a real conversation about it. So welcome aboard.

Lorenzo Norris, MD: I'm happy to be here, Nick, and I'm so pleased to be talking with our guest, Dr Brandon Newsome, a young black male psychiatrist. Dr Newsome, sir, tell us a little about yourself and where you're coming from.

Brandon Newsome, MD: I'm a fourth-year psychiatry resident at Boston Medical Center, so I'm about to graduate and to become a first-year fellow, as of July, at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC. I was born and raised in the South so I can talk about those experiences, and now I've been in the Northeast for the past four years.

Norris: Let's get right into it. This is a time in our country that we've not seen — I shouldn't say we, because depending on where you live in America, you have seen this and you've seen this multiple times.

I see a lot of myself in Dr Newsome right now, and I am struggling with this: I'm talking to you about the same stuff I was talking about when I was a fourth-year resident. I'm talking to you about the same stuff I was talking about when I was a college student. I'm still talking about the same stuff I was talking about when I was a medical student. I'm still talking about the same things that were the impetus for the hip-hop generation regarding police brutality and violence.

We are still talking about the use of lethal force and abuse of power, particularly by police or law enforcement officers, and how that is perpetrated against African American men in particular, and the unfortunate and tragic murder of Mr. George Floyd. Dr Newsome, tell me how you're thinking about this. Before we even get into how our patients or our colleagues are doing, how are you doing with this?

Newsome: It's been difficult. Like you, I've heard this story time and time again. I was just on a panel, having a conversation about race and policing, and I realized we had the same conversation during my first or second year of residency because there had been another death. But even though all of these unfortunate deaths are triggering us, this one is a little different for me for a few reasons. As you know, this is happening with the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis and we're already seeing so many people, especially from black and brown communities, dying from that.

And then I'm witnessing what happened, watching that video and thinking about all the interventions we've already tried. We tried body cameras, and the dude was wearing a body camera. We tried to get our police officers to be engaged, to try to check their roles, but people were there, witnessing everything, and nothing happened. An upstander was there, a white upstander, a firefighter who was telling them to check his pulse. Still nothing happened, it didn't stop them.

I believe the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis makes it a whole lot more painful for me and many others. I am part of a black physician email group and it's been triggering for all of us because we all imagine that this could be me one day, especially when you think about the Amy Coopers of the world, among other things.

Norris: I completely agree. We're dealing with loss of life due to a virus, including, [personally speaking] that of my departed grandmother, Willie Mae Newell. Why am I bringing this up? I bring it up because regardless of one's socioeconomic strata or title or whatnot, particularly in the black community, this is the kind of mess we're dealing with. We're dealing with the stress of COVID-19 that is disproportionately affecting African Americans. We're dealing with social isolation, we're dealing with the economic recession and the collapse that everyone else is dealing with, and on top of that we are now dealing with another murder. But this particular murder resonates very differently because as you said, it seemed like every single thing that could have been done was done.

You will read reports that Mr. Floyd was resisting arrest. But you look at this video; this is not a man resisting arrest. This is a man trying to say, please you are killing me. These are other people saying the same thing. These are police officers not acting right. This is so many different things going on and when you hear this and look at this video, you can come to no other conclusion than it is murder.

As psychiatrists, we frequently have to restrain people, and it is always understood that restraint can turn into assault extremely quickly. But in this particular case, there was no thought or concern about this man's life or his health. There are many good police officers that do think of that and so this was shocking. It was jarring. It was another thing piled on an already taxed black America. I was talking with my black male colleagues about this and I think a lot of people don't actually realize that while there are black male psychiatrists, there are only a few of us.

Newsome: True that.

Norris: There are only so many black male physicians, period, and black male psychiatrists in particular. At different points in time we are called on to take leadership roles, and to talk, to speak on things and be a voice. Well I have to tell you, after a while, this is pretty goddamn tiring for us to contain our disappointment, our anger, and our rage and still stay hopeful, optimistic, and still be a voice for those who are not able to speak.

Newsome: I agree that sometimes it can be tiring to have to take leadership roles and continue to talk about all these things, but I also feel that, at least for me, it gives me some sort of route to address the angst and do something with it. I believe all of us are just figuring out how to deal with these feelings that we shouldn't have to feel because of a murder that was televised.

Norris: Thank you. For a murder that was televised; that was tweeted; that was broad-banded; that was streamed.

Now we've laid the framework, in terms of what we're feeling. Let's move on to why you and I are in this profession, and that's our patients. What are you seeing on the frontlines? What are you seeing with our patients?

Newsome: I was speaking with one of my black male patients and he was fearful. He had been perfectly fine, even in the COVID crisis he was doing well. But when you get this milieu of police violence, now he's feeling this intense fear. Should I be walking alone at night? What happens if I am the one who is at the wrong place at the wrong time?

I also find that some of my non-minority patients sometimes find difficulty making sense of it. Minority individuals already know these things are happening. But some of the non-minorities are wondering how or why would something like this happen in America? This is just how America is for the black folks.

Norris: Could you elaborate on that? I always found that to be a very interesting dynamic for those who are not minorities or people of color. I will have folks in a psychotherapy session who are just bewildered by events like this. It is not the America they think they know — they are shocked that this is actually what's going on.

Newsome: It's all about experiences. If you didn't grow up around a lot of minorities, you haven't necessarily had these conversations. Even speaking for myself, sometimes I don't want to discuss these things; you never know what you're going to get. You might find an ally or you might find someone who isn't at all supportive. I think the surprise is from lack of exposure. If you don't have to live through racism, you can most certainly have blinders on and not notice.

Norris: Can you comment on the fear you're seeing in some folks? It can even get to the point of reactivating PTSD.

Newsome: I notice it more with black individuals, a fear that they might be the ones who may die; or with black mothers, wondering, what about my child? Is this what they are going to have to live with for the rest of their lives? Older people would say that we fought already and it's still going on. What are the fruits of the labor we put in?

Norris: I agree with you completely. What are the fruits? You're going to see those strong reactions. You're going to see fear, you're going to see anger, and you're also going to see guilt that they could not stop this. I'm speaking particularly about some of my non-minority patients. It goes along with that confusion. This manifests in a desperate need to do something.

But here's the problem, you don't really know what to do because no one is educated on it. And as you said before, race is a very polarized subject. No one even likes to talk about racism because it's so, oh my goodness. We've run away from it so much to the point that we can't deal with it. Racism, whether or not you witness it, whether or not you participate in it, whether or not you are the subject of it, affects and hurts us all. We all have to start to own that. You can't just stay siloed because eventually it's going to come back and affect you.

I could easily be Mr. Floyd, but at the same time, due to my station and things of that nature, I have a certain level of privilege and autonomy. There could be a tendency to put your head under the sand, you know, look at how far we've come, Barack Obama. But you've got to say, no, we still have enormous, enormous, enormous amounts of work to do.

We've been talking about the patients. What have you noticed in your colleagues and how they've been feeling about this?

Newsome: Again, I see them feeling saddened by the events. One of the other things I've noticed is that some people are in environments where they have program directors and chairs who will directly condemn certain behaviors and say, this is racist, this shouldn't happen. But then there are other programs that have been more silent. I've had people say that this is the first time that they have felt isolated in a long while.

We all participate in these physician WhatsApp groups and according to some of the comments, people are realizing that these folks that they were just on the front lines with, fighting COVID, are perhaps not the allies that they originally thought they were, based on the things these people are saying.

Norris: Wow. It's good that we're talking about this from the viewpoint of two different generations. You've got the WhatsApp group and Google Hangouts and all that kind of good stuff, and I'm still with pagers and such. That's interesting — the reality that folks you thought were your allies turn out not to be, because you're bringing up difficult conversations that we don't normally talk about.

I have noticed that some people around me have been silent because they don't know what to say. They're so concerned that I'm going to be offended or they're going to hurt me or say the wrong thing, so they stay quiet. As I reflect now, this is the wrong thing to do. Own your concern. I've been in two large meetings now, and I've had multiple people who I consider friends say, I wanted to email or text you right then and ask you how you're doing, but I didn't because I didn't know what to say. I have entered meetings recently, and the meeting felt tense, and I'm thinking, what's going on? And now I realize they did not know what to say or how to approach it.

That's been a very interesting dynamic and tells us where we are with this. Today, for example, I was pleased to have the support of my dean's group. I felt I had to speak out, I just had to straight out tell them. Do you want to know what I'm feeling? I'm feeling rage. I'm feeling rage. And you all have to understand that, because I have to speak for those who aren't necessarily going to be able to express themselves. More importantly, I have to speak for myself and I'm feeling rage.

How our colleagues are processing this and how they're thinking about this runs the gambit. But I think about people not necessarily knowing what to say or how to approach it. I absolutely agree that with the leadership, you're going to get many different responses, and sometimes you're left to wonder, do I have to watch what I say? But I'm definitely supported at my institution.

What else are you seeing out there in terms of your colleagues or how people think about it?

Newsome: This also spurs some folks to activism. Some have been participating in protests. There will be White Coats For Black Lives protests, among other things. So it's spurred folks to action, and it's also spurred folks to try to be part of a community. Of course, with the whole COVID crisis, we can't necessarily come together, so we've been doing Zoom gatherings more than anything else. But it has encouraged folks to want to do that more, too, because they want to check in on their brother or their sister to make sure they are doing well, and also to be able to express what's going on with them in a community where they know they can get validation.

Norris: I'm going to push you a bit because I detect in your tone something similar to what I'm feeling. I just got the email, the White Coats For Black Lives email. But I think your feeling is similar to mine — I've done this before. I've done White Coats For Black Lives. You all may have protested. But this display in Washington, DC, of the use of military and law enforcement to clear a public square of peaceful protestors is above and beyond the pale of anything I've ever seen in my life. We have to label that for the danger it is, for the threat to everything this country and the people that bled for this country stand for.

So while I'm going to participate in White Coats For Black Lives and many other things, I am looking for what is actually going to move the needle. I think the protests are great, but at this point in time I want institutions, I want money, I want lawyers, I want a systematic approach that is a cold rage that does not leave.

Newsome: I most certainly agree. Of course the protests are really important, but depending on where you are, you have a different lens. As physicians, especially as black physicians, since there are so few of us, we have a unique opportunity to leverage that, whether that means communicating through op-eds or calling your senators and talking with them to try to move things forward.

Physicians are mobilizing. In the last few days, a physician created a Zoom event and hundreds of physicians joined to try to figure out how we can structurally fix this problem. So I most certainly believe that in this effort to address racism, we physicians will need to lend our voices and our privilege to move the needle as best we can.

Norris: Some of our colleagues in the Black Psychiatrists of America have put out a press release on racism in which they propose some actions that should be taken immediately. I think this is a useful thing to talk about for the MDedge community.

The first action: "Declare racism a public health problem and establish national goals for addressing this as a health equity issue. Give priority to addressing the issues of healthcare disparities including the mental health needs of historically marginalized communities across the US."

What do you think about that?

Newsome: Those are two extremely important steps. The question is, how do you make that happen?

Norris: You're reading my mind. I love that our colleagues put that out there, but that was my next question.

Newsome: There is going to be a town hall about this and I'm hoping that we can plan how we envision this happening. I can imagine that 20 or 30 years ago there was also a fear in society that there wouldn't be episodes of police brutality. I can imagine that there were similar ideals and hopes. But I think we need to put all of our minds together and ask, how are we going to accomplish this? Is this going to be something we're going to put our money into? Is this going to be something we're going to get senators and legislatures onboard with to make policy?

Norris: Let me read off some of the other action points they put out. There are six of them.

"Establish a governmental multidisciplinary and ethnically diverse commission with representatives from the major healthcare professional associations in medicine, nursing, psychiatry, public health, psychology, social work, etc., and the faith-based community to provide recommendations to Congress regarding policies on how to best improve the health and well-being of our nation's black citizens."

That's a very solid overall recommendation. My question is, doesn't that, in some way, shape, or form already exist? Could we not put up policy statements from all of these folks regarding racism and things of that nature? I agree with what they're saying, but part of me wonders why certain things in the current system aren't working? That becomes the question. Are we not integrated enough? Do we not have enough cross talk? Do we not have enough money behind it? So I agree with that goal, but I would be curious if that doesn't already exist. What are your thoughts about that, Dr Newsome?

Newsome: I would imagine that the National Institute on Minority Mental Health and Health Disparities would have something similar. I believe one of the things you mentioned is really important. In addition to making these recommendations, we need to be looking at where these leaks are occurring that keep them from working. What is the current structure and why is it the way it is with regard to the governance.

Norris: Here is another of their action statements: "Declare 'Civic Mental Health' a national priority and incorporate it into the educational curriculum from K-college, as well as in the training of local, state and national officials, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system."

Let me be clear, I like every single one of these action statements. I encourage everyone to participate in dialogue and discussion. You may agree with some of these, and some of them you may not, but if there is one you agree with, that you really are motivated about, that's one that you need to explore and dig into a bit more, because it's too big for us to handle on our own, just like racism and equality.

I'm going to tell you, I like this statement. I do like this. Obviously these are broad points, but I do like at the idea of training law enforcement officers about "civic mental health." For example, Dr Michael Compton, who has done a lot of great work in the area of mental health and prevention, has worked with police officers to help them interact with those with mental health conditions by modulating their own emotional response. I'm very interested in these types of recommendations that particularly target law enforcement officers, and helping with that "emotional quotient." I'm interested in seeing how far that can spread in the country. What do you think, Dr Newsome?

Newsome: Educating police officers about how to interact would be quite important. I believe the National Alliance on Mental Illness does some of that work, partnering with law enforcement agencies, talking about mental health and cues to look at. There also are some programs where people ride along with mental health clinicians and police officers, which I find to be really helpful. But clearly, what's going on right now isn't working. So I would be open to any reasonable idea.

Norris: Here's one last action point: "Establish police community review boards with power to take action in areas of police misconduct pending formal review by the appropriate authorities. This will offer a level of empowerment when communities feel they have a voice that can be heard."

This is where I want my focus to be, as I move forward to try to do something sustainable. To deal with police brutality and abuse of power in general, but specifically as it relates to African American men and the lethal use of force. We need to work on policies that will enable African American men to make it to court, so that every encounter with a police officer is not literally viewed as a potential lethal encounter.

A lot of people aren't going to like me saying that, but it's the absolute truth. You have to think like that as an African American male, regardless of your station, regardless of where you live. This is the reality. There are many, many good police officers out there. I have a few friends who are law enforcement officers. I work with security at the George Washington Hospital constantly. But that still does not change the fact that if I get pulled over at a traffic stop, I know precisely certain things I need to do and not do, or the encounter could end badly. By that I mean loss of life.

So I encourage anything where we can start to take a systematic look at law enforcement and empower communities to look at who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong. Information is coming out now about the man who murdered Mr. Floyd, and this was not the first time he was involved in misconduct. There were red flags; we have to start to confront this. We have to learn from every single one of these situations and grow because another one is going to happen next week, it's just whether or not you hear about it. That's the reality of the state of America. You may not like to hear it, but that's just a fact.

For me, the idea of targeting police as a starting point in that abuse of power and how communities can have a whole hell of a lot more of a say so, is huge.

Newsome: There are already community partnerships, but the idea of the community being able to bring someone to justice would be exceptional. We probably have to look at it and make change on a citywide or statewide level because, depending upon the community, it would be difficult to enforce.

When I was in Alabama, there was a collaborative approach for the police officers and the community of Burnsville, but I don't know that they felt like anything would happen anyway. So I believe there would have to be a deep investment from the state. We would also have to work to make sure that people believe that the system would actually work in their favor rather than lead to more people harassing them for reporting something.

Norris: I like that. People have to believe and trust that it's going to work in their favor, because things can always go wrong. You grew up in the South and you've been in Boston for four years. Has going from the South to the Northeast informed how you view these issues?

Newsome: Things were a little different in the South. Keep in mind, this is just me talking about me. In the South, you see some directly racist incidents. You know who the racist people are and you just don't go around them. It's different in the Northeast, because there, I would say I've experienced more the micro-aggression–type things — incidents that make you question, is this really racism? Even though I don't like the events that have occurred, I most certainly appreciate being able to see racism in the deep South and also seeing it, even from the educated group, in the New England area.

Norris: All my family's from Alabama. I'm originally from Cleveland, Ohio, but I used to spend all my summers in Alabama, from kindergarten until I went to college, essentially. So I appreciate what you're saying particularly as it relates to the experience of racism in different parts of the country.

In Alabama, the racism was definitely more overt, but in a certain way people were OK  with that because it was just understood, and people lived with it. In the Midwest and the North, it's a little more subtle — I like the term micro-aggression — but it still exists. Once you know how to navigate it and once you understand what it looks like, you realize no matter where you are in the country, as an African American male, you are going to have to navigate this.

What else comes to mind?

Newsome: We as physicians need to stand up, to use our privilege to support and push forward the agenda of ending racism in the United States.

Andrews: Dr Newsome, would you explain exactly what an "ally" is? I know that term exists in the nomenclature, but if you googled it, I think you'd find advertisements for a bank and dictionary definitions. Could you talk about what it means in to the context of this conversation, and LGBTQ and gender rights? What is an ally and how does someone become an ally?

Newsome: I think of an ally as someone who stands with marginalized communities, even when the going gets tough. When nothing's happening, it's easy to say, I support black folks, I support Hispanics or LGBTQs, but when the going gets tough, when people are out there protesting, when your own colleagues are saying things that might be a micro-aggression or something racist, I see an ally or an upstander as someone who is going to not only support you in a hidden way, saying, oh that must have been really difficult, but also actively speaking against those negative things that are going on. I'd like to hear Dr Norris's answer.

Norris: I think you described it very well. The key word you said was stand. If you look at this country, movement has been made when allies of related but different viewpoints all agree upon certain common goals that we will stand with each other to accomplish.

Dr Newsome, is there any way social media can transform how we'll be doing this differently compared with the civil rights movement? One of the things they said about the civil rights movement was it was the cameras and the TVs that pushed this out. How might social media affect the way in which we think about racism, process it, network, come together?

Newsome: With the push of a button, people can post something on Twitter, say something negative or make a comment. So most certainly, social media adds to peoples' concerns with racism. I've had to subtly block plenty of folks on Facebook, or at least hide their viewpoints, thanks to some of the things that they post. So social media can certainly be used as a negative.

By the same token, I do believe we can start using social media in a positive way with regard to actually giving folks like yourself or me or other champions in the community a platform for those tough conversations. Give people the access they may not otherwise have. One of the things we mentioned earlier is that everybody doesn't get the chance to have conversations about racism, so social media can enable us to talk about it.

Norris: Let me just jump on that, because now I'm curious. In your age cohort, how many conversations about race are you all having?

Newsome: Right now, it's a lot.

Norris: Well that's good. In my age cohort — I'm 47 — you'd be surprised how little is actually happening.

Newsome: Right now, we're talking about it a lot, but I also want to provide context. I'm at Boston Medical Center, where a majority of our patient population is black and Hispanic and we have this mission to give exceptional care without exception. So there are going to be conversations, perhaps more conversations, about race and social terms of health here than perhaps other places that don't necessarily have the same patient population.

Norris: If you had a wish list of two or three things for our patients and what they are going through right now, what would you wish?

Newsome: One thing I would wish for my patients in this time of crisis is that wherever they spend their time — their workplace or community — that entity would specifically condemn racism and try to make sure that they don't feel isolated.

And I wish there was a united national front for my patients to condemn racism and then to be able to talk about police brutality without doing anything that might be triggering to many in our communities.

Norris: You want them to be at a workplace that acknowledges and sincerely condemns racism through actions, words, and deeds. People have amazing resilience, particularly if they feel that they're heard and supported.

To all the clinicians across America, particularly in our emergency departments (EDs), and on the front lines everywhere, but definitely EDs, I know you're tired, I know you're stressed, I know you're exhausted, I know many of you are risking your lives. I wish for my patients that you continue to collaborate with them, that you take that extra 10 seconds or minute that's going to make a difference for making the correct diagnosis, getting that housing right, or getting that follow-up right, not just for African Americans, but for everyone.

I wish that you will remember a lot of the things we talked about in terms of our oath and that you dig deep, one last time, and you slow down and you listen and you ask yourself, what can I do? What can I do?

Right now, we are all hurting. We are all hurting, and we need to collaborate with our patients and we need to do it in a very mindful way in which we are slowing down and not reacting. We are not being emotional and we still continue to work and collaborate with the patients we serve. If I had to wish for anything I would wish that our patients still get the amount of time they need and a bit more, because Lord knows they're already going through enough.

Newsome: That would be absolutely wonderful.

Norris: Dr Newsome, I am looking forward to seeing you at Children's, as part of the George Washington University family. Keep doing what you're doing. Even though I just met you, I'm very proud of you and how you represent yourself and how you represent all of your patients, regardless of their color. It was a privilege talking with you.

Andrews: And that concludes this episode of the Psychcast. This is published episode number 120. If you have any comments or ideas for the show you can email us at podcast@mdedge.com. You can also contact us via Twitter @MDEdgePsych. For Dr Lorenzo Norris and Dr Brandon Newsom I am Nick Andrews, you are listening to the Psychcast.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com.

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